In February 2019, the growth of the air travel industry seemed boundless.
Worldwide passenger air travel had increased 50 per cent in just six years, and large aircraft manufacturers, like Airbus and Boeing, could barely keep up with demand.
Air travel contributed about 2 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and showed no signs of levelling off.
So, a group of climate-conscious activists in Britain set-up Flight Free UK, the British arm of a Swedish movement that showed moderate success in getting Swedes to stay on the ground.
Flight Free UK wanted to 100,000 Britons to pledge not to fly in 2020. They say about 6,000 signed up by the end of 2019, among 25,000 worldwide, including some in Canada.
Then came COVID-19, and now the air travel industry is on its knees.
The Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) estimates 2020 will see a drop in passenger air travel of between 35 and 65 per cent compared with 2019.
Millions of travellers will be going flight-free this year — whether they like it or not.
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“Lots of people say, ‘Wow! Flight Free 2020 is going really well!’” said Flight Free UK Director Anna Hughes.
“You look up at the sky, and usually there’d be maybe five or six planes in the sky that you’d be able to count. And [now] there’s none, and it’s quite disconcerting, actually, because the campaign we were running was within the context of ‘normal’, and this isn’t normal.”
Hughes says this is not how she wanted to see a change in the way we travel.
“This is an action that people have been forced to take. So, obviously, the whole purpose of our campaign is that we want people to choose not to fly,” said Hughes, sitting beside her houseboat in east London.
Land voyage on-hold
One of the 6,000 signatures on the Flight Free 2020 campaign in the U.K. was travel writer Stephanie Parker.
Her blog Big World Small Pockets focuses on low-cost travel, something that budget airlines have made so accessible in recent years.
“In 2019, I think I flew 28 times, and I just felt like this was the obvious thing, staring me in the face,” said Parker.
“I’m a vegetarian and I use public transport and I travel with my reusable straw and flask and everything else. But travel was the obvious one that I just wasn’t… doing very well on, to be honest.”
Parker had planned an epic eight-month land and sea voyage across Europe, Africa and Asia, and she was just one month in when the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.
The crisis that forced so many people to ditch flying forced Parker to take an emergency flight back to the U.K., as she faced the prospect of getting stuck indefinitely in Morocco.
“Obviously, at that time, I felt really, really sad to have broken the pledge made,” she said.
“But it also reminded me (that) sometimes we make these commitments to ourselves, but [there are] greater forces at work.
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Parker has been based back on the small island of Jersey, one of the U.K.’s Channel Islands, since the lockdown began.
Her travel writing and blogging business is frozen for the foreseeable future.
“It’s certainly better for the planet if we were all able to at least reduce our air travel,” said Parker.
“Whether it will be sustainable, once — let’s hope — the world returns to some sort of normal is a different issue.
“We’re forced by necessity to travel in a different way, and that may open up our eyes and change some people’s behaviours in some ways.”
Parker wants to try her voyage again in 2021, if possible.
Hughes and her colleagues at Flight Free UK hope to issue a range of new, more-flexible pledges for 2021, in order to encourage travellers to make whatever changes they can.
“We’re still saying that when the choice returns, can we choose to travel in other ways that don’t include air travel,” she said.
“Obviously the coronavirus, that is the immediate crisis. But the climate crisis is a long-term crisis, and just as serious, and none of that has changed.”