Two Swiss politicians from Zurich, Thomas Hardegger and Priska Seiler Graf, are calling for short-haul flights to be taxed, a move they think would push people away from flying and towards train travel. They want an end to the uncontrolled increase in air travel and the emissions it generates.
In 2010, the average distance flown by a resident of Switzerland was 5,200 km. By 2015, the same figure had risen to close to 9,000 km, a 73% rise, according to numbers from the Swiss Federal Statistical Office. 79% of all passengers flying from a Swiss airport in 2015 left on flights to somewhere else in Europe.
According to WWF, Swiss residents fly twice as often as their neighbours, making them world leaders. The organisation says a short roundtrip flight could emit as much as a year of driving a car. And while car drivers pay lots of tax when the fill up, airlines and their passengers pay none.
Speaking to parliament, Hardegger called on the Federal Council, Switzerland’s executive body, to take steps to reduce the number of short-haul air travellers. He thinks many of these journeys could be made by train, a more environmentally friendly form of transport.
His colleague Priska Seiler Graf asked what measures the government had in mind for pushing travellers towards train travel. She said “flights are so ridiculously cheap that some fly every weekend, when for a journey of 500 km, they could easily catch a train.” According to Seiler Graf, flights between Zurich and Geneva make no sense.
Travellers would be more likely to choose the train if it were cheaper than flying. Swiss Rail is heavily supported by Swiss taxpayers. The company’s annual return shows public subsidies of more than CHF 13 billion for 2016. Cuts in train fares would most likely result in taxpayers subsidising train travellers more than they already do, not a great deal for taxpayers who rarely travel.
The other alternative would be to make flights more expensive. Seiler Graf said that one possibility would be to add a tax to plane tickets. She thinks hitting wallets is the best way change behaviour. Thomas Hardegger reminded the government that the current price of flights does not reflect their environmental cost. In addition, he pointed out that the Federal Council must take measures to implement the Paris agreement.
Other politicians, such as Christian Wasserfallen, think the public should be free to choose. He thinks Switzerland would be shooting itself in the foot by introducing such a tax. He thinks global actions rather than local ones are what is needed to protect the environment.
Karin Müller, a spokesperson for the airline Swiss, warned against taxes on short-haul flights. “If we want Switzerland to focus on long-haul flights, we’d need to fill planes with transit passengers. Without short-haul flights this wouldn’t work.”
On 14 June 2107, Easyjet announced the delivery of its first Airbus A320neo in Toulouse. According to the airline, the new aircraft consumes up to 15% less fuel and is 50% quieter on take off.
While new aircraft such as these will help to reduce emissions, it is difficult to see how they could make any headway on reducing greenhouse gas emissions if average air miles flown increase by 73% every five years.
Given we all share the air, perhaps one day, flying somewhere for a weekend will become as socially unacceptable as farting in an elevator. But don’t hold your breath.