’We’ll embarrass people with the data’: Inside the airline industry’s plan to reverse flight ban

’We’ll embarrass people with the data’: Inside the airline industry’s plan to reverse flight ban

European countries have been cracking down on short haul flights to reduce climate-warming emissions.

In December, France banned domestic flights between cities that can be reached by train in under 2.5 hours. just days later, Belgium increased duties on flights shorter than 500 km.

Now, the airline industry is pushing back.

Airports and airlines plan to invoke EU freedom of movement rights to reverse these environmental restrictions.

Why is the airline industry trying to reverse environmental restrictions?

Short haul flying - once a symbol of cross-border liberalisation in Europe - is increasingly under fire.

In practice, France's ban only impacts three domestic short haul flight routes, and is initially in place for three years. Yet airline industry groups fear it could set a precedent for wider limitations across the EU.

French and European airports and regional airlines are laying out a new strategy to counter the ban.

While they say a formal legal challenge is unlikely, they plan to invoke freedom of movement - one of four basic freedoms enshrined in European law - in informal reviews of the law, which are expected to take place twice a year. They also intend to lobby the government.

"We have the principle established by the EU of an open, liberalised market with the freedom to provide air services for any European airlines between any point within Europe," says one senior industry official.

"And that's basically to support the freedom of movement, people and citizens across Europe."

The freedom of movement argument wades into one of the most sensitive topics in European politics, but faces considerable hurdles given its complexity, European sources say.

Airline industry groups say bans are ineffective in curbing emissions

Industry bodies also claim the French flight ban - which impacted far fewer routes than environmental groups had hoped - is ultimately ineffective in significantly curbing emissions.

SCARA, a group representing regional French airlines that lobbied aggressively to water down the original ban, said it would also use review periods to prove that the ban has no real impact.

"We'll embarrass people with the data," global airlines head Willie Walsh said on the sidelines of the Airline Economics conference in Dublin.

"If we banned all flights of less than 500 km in Europe... it would be less than 4 per cent of the CO2 in Europe, right? I think there's a perception that it would be 80 per cent. It's not a solution," he told Reuters.

The airline industry expects support from the EU in reaching its goals to limit the scope of the ban.

"Europe has certainly recognised that the French law could be applied only in a limited way... So this is good," says SCARA head Jean-Francois Dominiak.

According to the Union of French Airports, the routes that will be banned represent only 0.23 per cent of France's air transport emissions, 0.04 per cent of transport sector emissions and 0.02 per cent of the air transport sector's emissions.

The union plans to complain to France's Council of State about the ban, likely by the end of this month.

Should flight bans be more wide reaching?

Green lobbyists want wider restrictions, and are preparing to counter the industry's efforts to reverse the ban.

Jo Dardenne, aviation director at campaign group Transport and Environment, acknowledges that the ban is limited for now, but says it is an important signal to countries keen to reduce aviation emissions.

"It's to show that... you have the right to actually cap emissions from your aviation sector," she says.

Disappointed by the lack of ambition in the current rules, campaigners said they hope to go back to the original proposal of banning flights on routes with travel times of less than six hours.

"It's hypocritical. They made the ban have no impact... they had a strong push to reduce the ambition," says Sarah Fayolle, a transport campaigner for Greenpeace in France.

Fit for 55, a set of EU rules designed to tackle climate change and introduce reforms, will come into force across the bloc in the next two or three years. These should have a more significant environmental impact, EU officials say.

But for now, the EU will stick to its approval, Henrik Hololei, director-general for mobility and transport at the European Commission told Reuters, adding the EU mandated "strings attached", like review periods, make the ban reasonable.

"We've found a good balance so that (France) has been able to build, as we would say, a church in the middle of the village."