Here in Europe, we have recognised that after centuries of never-ending warfare, that the only way to defeat violence and to achieve peace and happiness for all was to get to know one another. To see each other as humans, rather than as notions — and to work together towards common goals. Nothing else has helped realise this more than the airline industry. Nothing else has made it possible for people to travel far and wide at affordable prices. And nothing else has allowed us to meet other people and cultures, to learn from them and enrich our own lives, as much as the airline industry. For this, I am grateful.
I find it all the more important to say this, since we live in a time where some misguided people have coined the term vliegschaamte, meaning to be ashamed of flying. Activists of radical left-wing politicians want people to be ashamed of flying. That stupefies me. How can we be ashamed of connecting with other people and cultures? How can we be ashamed of doing trade instead of starting wars? How can we be ashamed of enriching our lives in the most peaceful way? I say to hell with that shame mongering. I LOVE flying.
Despite the love, all is not well in the airline industry today. Activists are too eager to spread the lie that airlines are one of the most polluting sectors. This is simply not true. In the EU emissions trading system, aviation is a relatively small sector responsible for a mere three percent of all harmful emissions. Another example: a ticket tax is a very effective measure to reduce the number of flights, so airlines that oppose it are merely looking out for themselves. Again, simply not true: the effect of the Dutch ticket tax has been zero. Its only result has been the addition of 200 million euros in the national treasury — at the cost of the traveler — who will simply choose another airport without a ticket tax.
The same is also true when we talk about a kerosene tax. Let’s remember that in 1944, international transport was exempted from a fuel tax because international contact had to be stimulated in order to prevent another world war. A sound geopolitical reasoning. If we discuss a kerosene tax now, we have to consider this as well. We have to consider not just sustainability, but also trade, international relations and competition. I want the EU to be mindful of the latter, especially. Our airlines and hubs do not compete locally or regionally, or on a European scale. They compete globally.
A third example: the airline industry is basically negligent until it has moved completely away from fossil fuels like the automotive industry is trying to do. Not true either! You just can’t stuff a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 with batteries and expect it to do anything more than drive circles on the tarmac. It is an unreasonable demand.
Airlines and politicians share a joint mission: To distinguish facts from false accusations. We have a joint responsibility to stand up for ourselves and tell our story. The airline sector must become champions of the sustainability race of the 21st century, just like it championed global connectivity in the 20th century. All of the ingredients are there to tell a fantastic, inspiring story that does not just help airlines’ image, but also gives the public the optimism and reassurance that the race towards sustainable aviation is possible.
To the airlines I say, pick up the mantle and lead! We must use the sustainability wave to build new momentum for the Single European Sky. You can count on me to tell my colleagues the truth when they attack airlines for not doing enough: it is the EU itself that needs to do more, to unify the airspace and to enable the airlines to make vast efficiency gains. For me, it is simple: until the Single European Sky is completed, I will not even discuss slapping the industry with a kerosene tax. It is off the table.
And finally, it’s not enough to talk about what I can do, or what airlines can do. Consumers also have a role to play. I want people to keep travelling, to keep exploring the world, and to keep doing business. But I also want people to take their share of the responsibility, just like they demand from you and me. Ask yourself: Do I need to drive my car to the airport alone, or could I carpool? Do I have to meet my business contact in Asia in person, or could a videoconference more often also work? Do I have to take the plane to Barcelona, or could the train also be an option?
We’ve all got a lot of work to do. The good news is we’re in this together. Let’s continue to make flying a privilege that we all get to share. I am ready for takeoff!
Caroline Nagtegaal is a Member of the European Parliament, and Renew Europe