Can the US ban Short-Haul Flights to Combat Climate Change?

In an effort to combat the severely damaging effects of climate change, France has banned short-haul domestic flights between cities where the same journey could be made by train within two-and-a-half hours. The ban effectively rules out certain air routes between the capital, Paris, and cities such as Bordeaux, Lyon, Nantes, although connecting flights are not affected by the new law.

Short-haul flights, typically covering relatively shorter distances, contribute a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions due to the fuel consumption and associated carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions generated during takeoff and landing. If France can take such a drastic step, can America? What would it take for the federal government to ban all domestic flights where the same
journey could be made by car or train?

By imposing a ban on short-haul flights, the aim is to encourage alternative transportation methods, such as high-speed rail or electric vehicles, for shorter journeys. High-speed rail systems can provide a more sustainable option for travel, emitting fewer greenhouse gases compared to airplanes. Electric vehicles, if used for shorter distances, can also contribute to reducing carbon emissions.

Implementing such a ban would require a comprehensive approach, including the development of efficient and accessible rail networks, infrastructure improvements, and incentives to promote the use of sustainable transportation options. Additionally, public awareness campaigns and education about the environmental impact of short-haul flights could help shift travel behaviors towards more sustainable alternatives.

It is important to note that while banning short-haul flights may contribute to reducing carbon emissions, it is just one aspect of a broader strategy to combat climate change. Efforts to improve fuel efficiency in aviation, transition to sustainable aviation fuels, and invest in renewable energy sources for airports are also crucial for achieving significant emissions reductions in the transportation sector.

But US transportation experts argue that Amtrak, the national passenger railroad service, is not always a viable or preferred alternative to air travel in the United States. Several factors contribute to this problem. Amtrak’s network primarily focuses on major metropolitan areas and heavily trafficked routes, leaving many regions with inadequate or no rail service. This limited coverage makes it difficult for travelers in certain areas to access Amtrak as a feasible alternative to air travel.

Time and convenience are major factors for travelers and air travel is often faster and more time-efficient than train travel, especially for long-distance trips. Airlines can operate at high speeds and offer direct flights, allowing passengers to reach their destinations more quickly. In contrast, train travel is generally slower, subject to various stops along the route, and may require multiple transfers.

Additionally, Amtrak trains and schedules often run less frequently compared to air travel options. This limited frequency makes it challenging for passengers to find suitable departure times that align with their schedules and travel needs.

The rail infrastructure in the US also faces several challenges, including capacity constraints and maintenance issues. These limitations can result in delays and disruptions, making train travel less reliable and less attractive to passengers who prioritize timeliness.

Air travel can sometimes be more cost-effective than train travel, especially when considering factors such as competitive airfare pricing, airline promotions, and availability of budget airlines. While Amtrak fares can be competitive on certain routes, they may still be relatively higher compared to some domestic flights.

France’s ban has impacted millions of people planning their vacations. The good news for holidaymakers is that France has the second largest high-speed rail network in all of Europe, behind Spain. Consistent investment in the nationalised railways mean travel between big cities is ‘seamless and affordable’. According to Cornwalllive, “A ticket to go from Paris to Bordeaux, a journey of almost 400km which would take over six hours by car, can be bought for less than €20.” A typical train journey of equal distance on a popular Amtrak route would cost much more. For instance, a passenger riding the Northeast Regional route connecting cities like Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania could pay a range from around $50 to $150 or more, depending on factors such as the class of service (e.g., coach or business class), time of travel (peak or off-peak), and whether you choose a flexible or non-refundable ticket.

Perhaps what this means is that Europe could take such steps to curb carbon emissions without severely inconveniencing travelers, but if the US wants to follow suit, it will need to look elsewhere for ways to cut costs. American travelers are not willing to pay more and wait more for less efficient travel options to get from point A to point B. Cutting emissions is important and the US federal government should be looking for ways to do so. France has set a great example, but it doesn’t work for every country. Each country will need to be creative and come up with their own solutions that work for their citizens. Cutting emissions is possible and necessary. It will just take patience and creativity to arrive at the appropriate solution.

Chloe Atkinson is a climate change activist and consultant on global climate affairs.