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The true cost of your budget flight

Last January I booked return flights from Birmingham to Venice for £10 return, yes, you read that right £10.

I was a student at the University of Birmingham at the time and in yet another hopeless late night library session an email popped up from RyanAir – SALE!

As a student sitting in the cold library at quarter past midnight, I couldn’t resist the vision of celebrating the end of exams with pizza and gelato in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and I mean £10 – that’s cheaper than a night out at the Student Union, it would be rude not to… right?

I did go to Venice, and I had a lovely time; I wondered about the canals, visited art galleries and had a new sense of freedom now that my exams were over and I no longer needed to feel guilty for not being in the library.

But on the flight home, a new sense of guilt kicked in. As much as I’d benefited from the extremely cheap price of this flight, I wondered ‘how can this be the case?’ Why does it cost me £40 to take the 1.5 hour train from Birmingham home to Manchester, but a 2 hour flight to Venice was just £10? Someone or something has to be losing out here.

Over the past few decades air travel has seen a significant drop in price. This is largely due to the growth in budget airlines like RyanAir and EasyJet which manage to push down their prices by cramming as many people onto the flight as possible, offering extremely cheap starting prices but then charging you for every possible amenity after that.

In some ways cheap travel is great, it has opened up the world to more people, allowing us to experience and enjoy other cultures in a way that has never been possible before. But, consequently this has led to the perception that flying is something we can do anytime, as often as we like, with no knowledge of the wider impacts.

One fallout from these cheap flights affects the rights of the staff. Ryanair has repeatedly come under scrutiny after undercover reports have revealed it continues to underpay its employees; and other reports have revealed the huge pressure that flight attendants are under to maximise sales on the flights.

These cheap flights also come at grave cost to the environment. The aviation industry is responsible for 2% of all human-induced CO2 emissions, yet the airline companies pay no fuel or carbon tax.

Introducing a fuel tax could ensure that airlines are penalized for the negative impact that they have on the planet and it could create funding to help decarbonise the industry.

In May 2020, the UK Citizens Assembly even went so far as to suggest that the UK government should introduce a frequent flier levy. In the UK, 15% of the population take 70% of flights; globally, only 3% of the world’s 7.6 billion population fly frequently. Surely this small group, fortunate enough to travel frequently should have to pay for the disproportionate impact their flying habits have on the planet?

The Covid-19 pandemic has provided the government with a unique opportunity to harness a ‘green recovery’ by offering assistance to industries in return for their adoption of more sustainable practices.

However, this opportunity was largely missed. In total, European Governments agreed £11.35billion worth of bailouts to the aviation industry, with public funds used to save these highly polluting companies.

Some environmentalists have argued that the airlines should not be saved, whilst others have taken a more midline approach asserting that bailouts are only acceptable if they come with green conditions, with many campaigners arguing that airline companies should pay a fair share of taxes and not rely on carbon-offsets to ‘reduce’ their emissions, as they are currently doing.

Over 100,000 flights take off every single day and, fundamentally, if we are to reach the net-zero targets and limit global warming in line with the Paris Climate Agreement then we need to limit the number of flights that take place and a good place to start is by raising the price.

Cheap flights perpetuate a view that flying is the best option, with people jetting off to Paris for a meeting, or heading to Prague for a stag-do at any available opportunity. Of course, consumer behaviour has an important role to play in achieving this, but when the EuroStar costs £300 and a flight to Paris costs £30, can you really blame the consumer? We need governments to tax the most polluting industries and subsidise the more sustainable options, otherwise we will never see any meaningful change.

Pippa Neill

Co-founder and Co-producer