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Grant Whittington headshot

France Starts Banning Short-Haul Flights and Urges a Return to Travel by Rail

Short-haul flights have a huge carbon footprint. Now, France is starting to curb domestic flights, and leaders are mulling a ban on private jet travel, too.

Nice Côte d'Azur Airport in the south of France, summer 2022

The European Commission (EC) has given France approval to ban in-country short-haul flights where alternative train options can get travelers to the same destination within 2.5 hours or less. The ban, a first in Europe, will initially be in place for three popular routes flying between Paris-Orly and Nantes, Lyon and Bordeaux. These flight routes will be banned for three years and then reassessed by the EC.

The EC scaled back France’s initial plan to ban eight short-haul flights after the Union of French Airports and Airports Council International challenged the measure when it was first introduced as part of France’s Climate Law in 2021. The Commission determined that five of the proposed flights — between Paris Charles de Gaulle and Bordeaux, Lyon, Nantes and Rennes as well as between Lyon and Marseille — could not be banned because they either lacked a proper 2.5 hour rail alternative or the rail options were unavailable early in the morning or late into the evening. 

France takes aim at limiting private jets

The announcement coincides with France’s move to also crack down on flights on private jets. With the country’s ultra-rich making trips from Paris to the French Riviera a weekend routine, France is home to the highest number of private jet flights in Europe. The trips may be convenient for the travelers, but they’re costly to the environment.

A 2021 report from Transport & Environment revealed that private jets release 10 times more carbon emissions than passenger flights, and 50 times more than trains. Though passenger planes emit an inordinate amount of carbon, the burden is shared by their passengers. Trains remain the king of eco-friendly transport, consuming far less energy than flying and driving. 

Why this change is a big deal … and could become an even bigger deal

France’s plan to cut most domestic flights may have been diluted by pressures from airline unions, but banning three popular trips still holds the potential to significantly have an impact on lowering carbon emissions. Every passenger exchanging an airline ticket for a seat on a train represents major energy and carbon savings. 

Importantly, it can also signal to other governments — particularly in Europe where train lines are expansive — that short-haul flight bans can be an effective way to curb carbon emissions. The adoption of such policies and laws from France’s neighbors would inch the European Union closer to achieving its Fit for 55 goals, an E.U. mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent or more by 2030.   

Policies limiting other short-haul flights would also offer Europe the chance to flaunt its unrivaled train network. France’s high-speed rail options are far from unique in Europe: the Eurail system connects 33 European countries and offers travelers 40,000 destinations. A 2021 report from Greenpeace found that one-third of Europe’s busiest 250 flights currently have train alternatives under six hours. 

The same report from Greenpeace compared air and rail trips from popular European cities. The flight between Brussels and Amsterdam is taken by more than a million passengers each year despite a rail alternative that takes under two hours, a much shorter journey when factoring in airport security and boarding times. The train trip not only saves time, it’s also a major energy saver. The study reveals that the short-haul flight from the two capital cities emits 13 times more carbon per passenger than the train journey.

Activists hope to replicate and expand upon France’s short-haul flight ban. With the European Commission giving the green light and allowing France to experiment with the bans, it opens the doors for other European countries to follow their lead.

Image credit: Lum Lumi via Unsplash

Grant Whittington headshot

Based in Atlanta, GA, Grant is a nonprofit professional and freelance writer passionate about affordable housing and finding sustainable approaches to international development. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.

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