Earlier this week a report issued by Imperial College London and commissioned by the Committee on Climate Change suggested that one approach to reducing anthropogenic climate change is to disincentive air travel by banning frequent flyer programs. As a former neuroscientist, I’ve always been fascinated by behavioral economics. There are many simple things that governments, businesses, and individuals can do to motivate desired behavior. However, I think the idea of going after your frequent flyer miles is not a good approach.
To understand why this is a bad idea, let’s explore the function served by a loyalty program. First there is the goal to encourage more travel in general. Second, there is the goal to encourage loyalty so that any travel is devoted to a specific airline at the expense of competitors.
The first goal, to encourage more travel, can be generalized as encouraging more purchases. This is the function of ANY business’s marketing department. If you really wanted to limit carbon emissions then we should just ban advertising. Flying creates emissions. Building a car creates emissions. Shipping coffee beans to Starbucks creates emissions. Almost anything we can do to encourage people to buy less will lead to lower carbon emissions.
Obviously this is not going to happen. We would enter a global depression with mass unemployment as people spend less and thereby manufacture less.
You may counter that air travel is a bigger source of emissions than other industries. Okay, fine. We’ll fix air travel. Once that’s done, which industry will you target next? And which industry after that? Perhaps a more comprehensive solution is needed.
The second goal of a loyalty program is that it entices travelers to fly with one airline vs. another. I don’t see how this is linked to global warming at all. Killing loyalty programs might cause you to diversify your travel habits across multiple airlines but isn’t likely to make you travel much more or less than before.
Loyalty programs could actually be a good thing if they result in consolidation among more competitive carriers which are then better able to invest in new fuel efficient aircraft and renewable fuel. Encouraging healthy and efficient businesses practices can be, in the long-run, beneficial to the environment.
What is not healthy and efficient is hiding costs.
Take a look at your utility bill. There is probably one line for water consumption and another line for sewerage. The utility recognizes that consumption of a resource requires paying for the initial consumption as well as the subsequent waste removal. Right now, airlines (and thus paying customers) pay for consuming aviation fuel. The costs of emissions are not paid by anyone directly.
So the natural solution as I see it is to leave the loyalty programs in place but impose a carbon tax on the emissions caused by each flight. Ticket prices are already stuffed full of taxes and fees to pay for all the things you use, like airport facility fees and TSA security screening fees. This is just one more.
What’s great about a tax is that you can scale it according to the damage caused by the individual. One motivation for banning airline loyalty programs is that most emissions are caused by a small number of the most frequent flyers. Well, they will pay the most taxes if they continue to buy the most tickets. The infrequent travelers will pay fewer taxes.
And we’re not talking about a flat tax on every flight. Your first class ticket with its bigger seat, pajamas, multi-course meals, and perhaps even an in-flight shower is so much more harmful to the environment than some poor guy sitting in coach. More emissions take place during takeoff than they do when you’re at cruising altitude or descending, so the tax will be higher on longer flights but not strictly based on distance. The overall objective is to make the carbon tax on each ticket commensurate with the emissions produced. Don’t forget to apply it to award travel, too.
As you can see, I am designing a system that reflects the actual damage caused and linking it to the actual people causing that damage. It’s not that difficult to deduce how many emissions are caused by each passenger, their on-board service, and their checked baggage. Airlines track the fuel consumption and weight of their aircraft meticulously, and some airlines already offer the ability to purchase an optional carbon offset during the ticketing process.
There are lots of things we can do to improve the environmental impact caused by air travel. But banning frequent flyer programs? How does that achieve the goal of lowering carbon emissions? How do you know the marketing dollars spent on issuing miles won’t be directed elsewhere, like lowering ticket prices to encourage more travelers? It’s quite possible that this proposal, if enacted, would have no impact at all.