To fly or not to fly: Will our anti-flight behavior last?

People don’t want to fly.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, airlines have taken a hit. American Airlines recently cut 55,000 flights and grounded a third of its fleet. Yesterday, less than 300,000 people walked through airport security in the U.S. — compared to more than 2 million a year ago on the same weekday, according to the TSA.

Appeals from airlines detailing extensive cleaning measures aren’t working. Neither are rapidly falling prices. Case in point, a nonstop flight tomorrow from Washington, D.C., to Chicago will only run you $30 on a major airline, or $18 on a budget airline — that’s cheaper than a several-mile Lyft trip.

On the surface, this decrease in travel should bode well for the planet. The airline industry accounts for 2% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. This might not sound like much, but that number is expected to triple by 2050. And as potential travelers opt not to fly in the face of the coronavirus, airlines have suddenly stopped emitting all that carbon.

While this might sound like a dramatic step in the right direction, a pandemic is perhaps the worst way to cut emissions — trading carbon emissions for lives is a Faustian nightmare. Plus, what’s on the surface only tells part of the story.

“[Lower emissions amid a pandemic is] like a person who loses weight while sick,” writes Axios. “It’s a byproduct of a bad situation and by definition should and will not last.”

As economic strife drives carbon down, carbon also tends to soar back up, in a big way, after big economic disruptions. The problem shows just how dependent our modern economy is on fossil fuels, as the New York Times points out

Unsurprisingly, the abrupt decrease in traffic has hurt airlines financially. The industry is responsible for more than 500,000 jobs, and airlines like United are threatening layoffs without federal relief.

In the coming days that relief will come: the U.S. government’s $2 trillion stimulus will set aside $25 billion for the airline industry. But it won’t come with the strings attached that environmentalists originally hoped for.

Similar to how relief for the auto industry in 2009 came with increased emissions standards, the original House stimulus bill included environmental mandates for the airline industry. Most notably, it included a requirement that airlines be carbon neutral by 2025.  

This was important because unlike other industries, where electric vehicles are prevalent, airlines are much more dependent on fossil fuels. Several months ago, a six-passenger electric airplane did sustain a short test flight, but that’s only the beginning of a very long road. We’re still years, probably decades, from electric planes available commercially.

Those environmental mandates, however, didn’t make it into the final stimulus package.

That said, we should still use this opportunity to assess some of our most polluting industries, including flying. The pandemic, as terrible as it is, has allowed us to hit the reset button to separate our needs from our niceties. As we all shift the way we work, we have a clearer sense of just how dependent — or not — we need to be on carbon-intensive habits.

At the policy level, these debates are taking place on the Hill. But now, as we all brace for several weeks, or months, of social distancing, I wonder what it means for lifestyles overall.

Reassessing a carbon-heavy lifestyle

The last couple weeks, I’ve been wrestling with going home to my family. During times of crisis, we long to be with those we love most — and my mom has compounded this feeling, inquiring daily about my plans.

Several weeks ago, I would’ve taken a flight from D.C. to Cleveland for the (seemingly) safer pastures of my hometown. Now, I don’t want to go anywhere near an airport (for obligation to social distancing, for fear of contracting coronavirus, for fear of giving the coronavirus to my 58-year-old parents — I wish I could say it was out of concern for my carbon footprint, but like many, the pandemic seems to overshadow my climate concerns). Of course, as my mom continues to remind me, a rental car is a viable alternative to the 350-mile flight.

But my mom also told me this on FaceTime, an app that didn’t exist a few years ago. And when I used a group FaceTime to talk to my entire family last night, though I was several states away from them, the social isolation of my studio apartment seemed much easier to cope with.

We’re all pressing pause on our daily lives right now because we don’t have a choice. But this pandemic won’t last forever. And when it ends, in a way, we will emerge as though from a large social experiment. We’ll have a chance to reevaluate our habits and behaviors as we face another global health crisis: climate change.

Do we really need to take that flight? Will we choose to work from home instead of driving to work more often? Will we attend virtual conferences instead of traveling across the country to attend them in person?

Avoiding air travel, because of the high carbon footprint, is an individual solution for curbing climate change. Seventeen-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg notably doesn’t fly. Neither do a number of climate scientists, as we reported earlier this year

As we all get better acquainted with FaceTime, Skype, Zoom and WebEx, we may finally see the advantages of these digital meeting platforms over their more carbon-intensive alternatives. We may find we’re productive at home and that driving into the city for work is unnecessary, or at least not necessary all the time. 

Many Americans are currently in the second week of their extensive work-from-home, social-distancing lifestyles. For other parts of the world, this reality has gone on much longer.

We will emerge from this pandemic with new habits — more elbow bumps, more video chats, more handwashing — and we may also emerge with more carbon-friendly behaviors.

That includes how we work, as well as how we fly.