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What’s behind the revival of domestic flights in the UK?

British travellers appear to be flying within the country more than ever before. Can we blame them?

Written by
Ellie Muir

Flying is absolutely awful for the environment. We all know that. And the shorter the trip, the more flagrantly bad it is – because more often than not, those journeys could quite easily have been taken by train or bus. 

So it felt like quite a backwards step when Ryanair announced earlier this week that it would relaunch its London Stansted-Edinburgh route from October 30. Similarly, EasyJet launched 12 new domestic routes last year, including Belfast to Leeds, Liverpool to Bournemouth and Inverness to Newquay (all of which are doable by train or coach). While regular commuters may have rejoiced at the thought of regular, faster and potentially cheaper trips, environmental campaigners see the expansion of domestic air travel as a regressive move given plane emissions are a significant contributor to climate change.

But it begs the question: can we really blame people for choosing to fly right now? When prices for a return train ticket from London to Edinburgh are frequently upwards of £200, not to mention the extra time required to travel by rail, flying may well seem like a pretty decent idea. And given the ongoing train strikes causing disruption across the national rail network – from reduced timetables to severe delays to widespread cancellations – rail travel appears to have become a whole lot less reliable in recent months.

This isn’t a sustainable state of affairs. Planes produce more carbon emissions per traveller than trains, coaches and even private cars. That means cutting down on air travel will be crucial to achieving net zero, slowing global warming and avoiding the worst of climate change. Reducing the number of short flights we take by using trains, coaches and buses instead is a necessity, not an option.

As a result, some countries are considering banning short-haul flights. Leading the way is the French government, which has banned flights where a train or bus alternative takes two and a half hours or less. This new rule, which came into effect in April, is part of France’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030. Meanwhile, Germany is debating banning short-haul flights altogether. Spain has also said it wants to eliminate them by 2050. 

By comparison, the UK is falling behind. In 2021, the government cut Air Passenger Duty for domestic flights, providing an incentive to travel by plane post-pandemic. This decision was inevitably welcomed by airlines and airports but was criticised by environmental groups for encouraging carbon-intensive flying. 

One reason for the UK’s reliance on domestic flights could be that our rail and road transport has always been slightly behind the rest of Europe. We don’t have high-speed, double-decker domestic trains like France or Italy. Our coach network is quite limited in comparison. And when our high-speed rail services are running, delays and cancellations appear to be the norm. But it’s not exactly fair to blame the rail network for all of this – the government, airlines and airports are the ones responsible for the number of unnecessary, gas-guzzling flights taking to our skies.

One solution to this problem could be reducing train fares (like, duh!) Making popular journeys like London to Edinburgh and Manchester cheaper via rail might encourage more people to ditch air travel. But with rail workers and their unions currently demanding better pay and conditions from train operators, it’s unlikely that passengers will see a decrease in fares anytime soon. At the moment, it seems like it’s in the hands of travellers to choose – unless, that is, the government steps up and follows the lead of countries like France or Spain.

ICYMI: Heathrow is finally lifting its cap on passenger numbers.

Plus: we stayed in this remote cabin in the middle of nowhere and achieved peak cosiness.

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