Stephen Lezak is a Gates scholar and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge and manages the Oxford Programme on the Sustainable Future of Commodities and Infrastructure.
My grandmother was 90 and traveling alone in Paris when she broke her hip. She spent two weeks in the hospital, praising the food and practicing her French with the nurses. When she was ready to be discharged, our family began planning her flight home — business class, on doctors’ orders. She refused.
Flying is an exquisitely carbon-intensive activity. A round-trip ticket from Los Angeles to Paris generates the same amount of carbon dioxide as the average resident of Switzerland does in six months. But fly first class, and that same round-trip flight creates as much CO2 as the average American does in 30 months. That’s two and a half years’ worth of gasoline, heating, groceries, lights, AC, showers, and Netflix in 12 (hopefully luxurious) hours.
There are two reasons for this discrepancy. Most importantly, first-class seats take up a huge amount of space, often three or four times more than those in economy. Second, premium cabins tend to have a lower percentage of occupied seats on takeoff. That’s because airlines are happy to waste jet fuel if it means they rarely run out of first-class tickets to sell.
In 2019, first- and business-class travel accounted for 20 percent of commercial aviation emissions worldwide, or 179 megatons of CO2. To put that into perspective, that’s nearly double the emissions of the entire state of Washington during the same year, or the equivalent of 39 million passenger vehicles in the U.S.
To meet the Paris targets and limit climate change to 1.5 °C, the world’s total emissions must reach net zero by mid-century. According to an analysis by Carbon Brief, under a business-as-usual scenario, aviation is on track to consume a staggering 27 percent of the remaining global carbon budget between now and 2050.
To make matters worse, engineers still haven’t found a low-carbon substitute for jet fuel, leaving long-haul air travel as one of the last unanswered questions in how to mitigate climate change. For the time being, the best tools to decarbonize aviation are flying less and ensuring that the process is as efficient as possible.
There’s an obvious place to start: restrict premium seats to those who need them. Like my post-operation grandmother, there are plenty of travelers who should not spend several hours packed tightly in a human sardine tin. But the majority of us — irrespective of socioeconomic status — will do just fine.
Air travel already cuts a jagged line across class and privilege. Globally, 1 percent of humans are responsible for more than half of all emissions from commercial aviation. In 2017, fewer than half of all Americans took a single flight. The climate costs of flying are imposed by the few and borne by the many.
First class underscores this carbon plutocracy. According to the World Bank, a business-class seat has triple the emissions of economy, and a first-class seat has triple the emissions of business class.
Pollution is not an unlimited privilege, even for the mega-rich. The U.S. government and more than a dozen states already regulate the emissions of passenger vehicles, requiring auto manufacturers to meet minimum thresholds for fuel economy. In practical terms, this amounts to capping the carbon intensity of passenger travel. If it makes sense on the ground, why not do the same in the air?
Here’s how it could work: to fly in a high-carbon seat (say, double the emissions of economy), a passenger must claim a medical accommodation. The process shouldn’t be onerous or invasive; it could be as easy as checking a box when booking a ticket. After all, many needs are not visible.
How would this play out in the long run? Demand for first- and business-class travel would fall. Airlines would reconfigure cabin layouts to increase the number of seats in economy class. Aviation emissions would decline (at least in relative terms). Meanwhile, those who need the extra room will still be able to purchase it, while those who enjoyed in-flight champagne and caviar will presumably be able to order those á la carte. Voilà — “economy class” becomes “efficiency class.”
If this sounds radical, consider that this change would mirror the accessibility of other modes of transport: On buses and trains, seats near the doors are reserved for those with particular needs, and choice parking for cars is set aside in a similar fashion.
If some people cheat the system, that’s OK. Those who flaunt the rules will be subject to the same social shaming as those who jumped the line to get a coronavirus vaccine.
This isn’t the first call to change the way we fly. In 2019, the CEO of the low-cost Hungarian airline Wizz Air (which offers only coach seats) called for banning business class, but his proposal excluded long-haul flights and made no concessions for travelers with legitimate needs for flying in a larger seat. Meanwhile, Europeans are pushing to ban frequent-flier programs. And the U.K. Labour Party is toying with the idea of outlawing private jets in British airports by 2025.
For my grandmother, who washes out Ziploc bags for reuse, flying business class was an affront to nine decades of her middle-class sensibility. But her surgeon explained that, following a hip replacement, having a fully reclinable seat would vastly reduce her odds of developing a blood clot somewhere over the Atlantic. In the end, her family insisted and she relented.
I’m grateful that she was able to stretch out. But as a general rule, personal activities that do great objective harm to the rest of society should be regulated. So let’s clamber aboard and share the armrest. Our short-term discomfort is a small price to pay for our long-term future.
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