We all know that flying is bad for the climate. What’s not clear enough is that it is mostly a problem of inequality: flying is essentially a luxury activity, and in many cases downright obscene.
Analogous to the concept of 'bullshit jobs' – jobs that are meaningless and harmful for society – we can therefore rightly speak of 'bullshit flights'. Our definition: bullshit flights are unnecessary, frivolous and unfair – and should be stopped immediately.
But who defines what bullshit flights are, and what flights are still legitimate to take, despite the threat of climate breakdown? And what are the consequences?
At Stay Grounded - a network of more than 170 member groups campaigning for a reduction in aviation and its negative impacts - we sent out a survey on bullshit flights, posing some challenging questions about the future of our mobility system.
Air travel is the most unequal form of mobility.
Only 1 per cent of the world’s population cause 50 per cent of commercial aviation emissions, while more than 80 per cent of the population have never set foot on an aeroplane.
Some very wealthy frequent flyers cause immense climate harm. Indeed, “the jet-setting habits of Bill Gates and Paris Hilton mean that they produce an astonishing 10,000 times more carbon emissions from flying than the average person”, according to a recent scientific study.
Even worse: the new hype of space tourism. A single 11-minute space flight amounts to at least 75 tonnes of emissions. This exceeds the average per capita lifetime emissions of the poorest billion people on Earth.
So while many might agree that space flights are absolutely not legitimate in times of climate crisis, how about private jets? Or flights transporting animals – like horses? Or a weekend shopping trip for €22?
But how about a migrant flying back to see their family in Turkey once a year, with a very limited budget and time schedule due to difficult working conditions? What about refugees from Afghanistan, who need to urgently leave the country – and might not be allowed to board an airplane?
The time is ripe to start a discussion around which flights are legitimate, and which are simply unjust and unnecessary “bullshit flights”.
What are bullshit flights?
We did some surveys in 2021 and evaluated the responses of about some 2000 people.
Weekend flights came back as the strongest example of a bullshit flight (with 96 per cent of respondents agreed). While a similar number thought that disaster relief during emergencies was the most legitimate reason to take to the air.
Apart from the quantitative answers, we also got some thought-provoking comments. For example, we realised that the question about night flights was not well understood. Night flights are flights landing or departing during the night, leading to severe noise and health problems for residents – and several airports already have bans on these flights.
Also, it might be an issue to call deportation flights “bullshit”: they are actually not only unjust and unnecessary, they are cruel and can lead to death and human rights violations.
“Regarding deportation flights, I think the bigger issue is deportation itself, and not the flights,” wrote one respondent. “Those people go through miserable circumstances, and if on top we need to deport them in lengthy trips on boat, how does that help them? The issue to me is why do we deport them?”
It's a similar story with military flights, where the emissions might not be the most negative impact. However, military flights for disaster relief might be totally necessary. So the question of whether military flights are legitimate or not might be outside the scope of this article.
At the same time, it makes clear how deeply embedded aviation is in our economy and society, and that the discussion about flights touches other topics around injustice that are also important to debate.
Is “bullshit” the right term?
It was also clear that respondents did not necessarily agree with classifying some flights as bullshit.
One person wrote that, “almost all of the options in the list are potentially fun and exciting, and the ability to waste and live and do hedonistic things can be a great feeling that people should be able to have. All these kinds of flights are bad because they damage the climate, but the people doing them may well get a genuine thrill and joy from them.”
It is complicated asking for a reduction of something that is a thrill and joy thing to do. But aren’t there other ways to have fun by other means, like slow travel, less work, more sleep, closer relationships with friends and family?
In the end, it is hard to start this discussion on bullshit flights without touching the individuals' lives. But the idea is to link it with the institutional and societal structures behind them – with the economy and power relations that lead to bullshit flights.
The power of the aviation industry exists both through a broad consensus that flights are fun, or could be fun if one could afford it, as well as through state subsidies, effective lobbying and greenwashing. It exists due to a lack of alternatives to travel, due to globalised trade, and a growing gap between rich and poor.
So, is the word “bullshit flights” the right one? Does it manage to link the individual flight to the systemic level? Does the term encompass them being unnecessary, frivolous, and unfair? And: does it contain the right amount of provocation to get a debate on the topic started?
The answers by our survey respondents varied considerably. While many preferred the term “pointless flights”, others made new word proposals: frivolous flights, needless flights, nonsense flights, apocalypse or disaster flights, f***-up-the-planet flights, don’t-need-flights, and many more.
Most of them however relate to such flights being either unnecessary, or frivolous, or unfair, or only relate to their climate harm. Some respondents argued that there should be a more serious term for it. However, many others supported the clear framing of bullshit flights, and the surprising number of respondents to our survey made clear that the term catches peoples’ attention.
And now what?
We might not find the one term that fits all. But we can try it out and see if we can make this term more common – by using it every time we come across a flight that is unfair, frivolous and unnecessary. In the news, in an advertisement, in a conversation.
We can then aim at linking this individual flight to a system that supports bullshit flights, that subsidises the aviation industry, and forgets to target the wealthy super emitters.
We need to reduce air traffic – but we need to do it in an equal and just way. Bullshit flights must be de-licensed, through cultural change but also through targeted regulation. By cutting short-haul flights and shifting them to ground travel like the railway. By limiting private jets. By banning night flights. By stopping Miles & More programmes that incentivise frequent flying.
This would be a start, and not a bad one. But, of course, we must realise that there will not be one completely fair aviation reduction measure in an unfair world.
As long as there is an enormous gap between the global wealthy and poor, and between Global North and South, there will be unfair access to flights. It is therefore important to link our demands on aviation to wider demands for global justice.
A version of this opinion piece was originally published on the Stay Grounded site in December 2021.