Reducing air travel is a key climate solution. But are we asking the right people to stay grounded?

  • Rakhim Rakhimov, Erik Thulin, Vaidehi Uberoi
September 14, 2021

Commercial air travel is one of America’s biggest contributors to the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change. In fact, the emissions from commercial flights in the U.S. alone eclipse the total annual emissions of the Netherlands. And the problem is only getting worse. According to a 2019 UN report, airplane emissions globally are expected to triple by 2050.

Low-emitting or fuel-efficient aircrafts and electric planes are decades away from becoming realistic travel options. We still need to address demand. Reducing emissions from air travel will require us to change our travel behavior.

A 2019 report by Rare’s Center for Behavior & the Environment found that flying less is one of the most impactful behaviors Americans can adopt to meaningfully move the meter on climate change. But who are we actually saying has to ground their travel habits? And how do we get those people to change their behavior?

Answering those questions begins by first understanding people’s motivations for flying and the barriers that stand in the way of doing it less. Our team of behavioral scientists at Rare’s Center for Behavior & the Environment conducted a qualitative formative study with a diverse set of American frequent flyers. Based on our research, we identified three pathways to meaningfully curb emissions by reducing air travel:

Target business travelers. When flying less is raised in the climate conversation, it too often focuses on the wrong kind of travel. People visiting their grandparents or flying to Disneyworld? These personal flights generally aren’t the issue. And frankly, asking people to stop them would likely be unproductive. Based on our research, most people are unwilling to forgo personal travel. Such flights provide a level of human connection and interaction that’s hard to replicate virtually. Many interviewees actually intend to fly even more for personal reasons in the future to catch up on missed vacations or family reunions.

Business travel is the emissions culprit. Twelve percent of Americans who make more than six round trip flights a year are responsible for two-thirds of all air travel and, by extension, two-thirds of aviation emissions.

A relatively small pool of flyers is responsible for most air travel. In fact, most Americans fly infrequently. The median American takes 0 flights during a regular year. Whereas flying for business is a relatively straightforward decision, flying for personal reasons is a deeply emotional and nuanced behavior that can be difficult to shift.

If we want to meaningfully reduce emissions, we need to target business, not personal, flying. Not only is the impact far greater than flying for personal reasons, but there is more momentum behind reducing business travel. For many, shifting towards less work travel is a far more attractive option given the recent trend toward remote working arrangements.

Target the right decision-makers. Asking the business traveler to stop flying to client meetings isn’t an effective approach. To have a real impact, we should focus on the people making decisions about flying. Who in a company or organization has the authority and social standing to change employee flying behaviors? Our research found that the decision on whether to fly is complex and more often than not outside of the employee’s direct control. The locus of control usually sits with their direct supervisor or client and is influenced by their beliefs and social norms around travel within and outside the company.

Leverage our understanding of people’s decision-making. Across many U.S. industries, flying is the default travel option. That is, if an employee does not actively decide to fly or avoids change, they will, by default, fly to their next meeting. However, we can leverage this cognitive bias by making the travel choice an active decision, forcing the relevant decision-maker to choose among travel options. This positive friction in the system can break the status quo and help people make more thoughtful decisions. For example, create a rule that requires a client to explain, in writing, the reason for an in-person meeting that requires a flight.

Further, leaders need to shift norms about flying. Heads of organizations and their management teams should normalize flying less, lead by example, and share the fact that they are flying less. Research on credibility-enhancing displays tells us that people who model flying less are far more effective at persuading others to do the same.

Most Americans believe that climate change is happening and support a range of climate solutions. However, when it comes to flying, the business traveler that wants to fly less often feels out of options. By approaching this complex problem with a solution that understands the context of the problem, the system that supports it, and the science of human behavior, we are far more likely to reduce flying. And after a year where the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone to experience life with reduced air travel, now is the right time to push for change.

Rakhim Rakhimov is a behavioral research associate at Rare’s Center for Behavior & the Environment (the BE.Center) focused on climate solutions. Vaidehi Uberoi is a behavioral science consultant working with the BE.Center. Erik Thulin is the behavioral science lead at the BE.Center.