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Grappling with the Challenge of Flying Less

By Philip Warburg

Airplane seats
Photo credit: Ty Yang

Despite its momentous impact on global warming, air travel continues to fly beneath our environmental radar. Plastic straws and idling cars draw righteous ire, but how many of us take to the skies with unthinking abandon?

Left unabated, commercial aviation by mid-century may produce up to a quarter of the carbon emissions that our planet can tolerate if we are to avert the more devastating impacts of climate change.

In a recent Beacon Broadside post, I pointed to the current lull in plane flights as a time to reflect on air travel’s place in a post-pandemic world. Responses to this article were passionate and widely varied.

One friend, Michelle Graham, is the administrator of a large commercial wind farm in Cloud County, Kansas. Though she took her son on a salmon-fishing trip to Alaska to celebrate his high school graduation several years ago, she and her husband Bruce seldom venture far from the family farm, Bruce’s childhood home and the place where he and Michelle raised their three kids. “We are willing to never fly again🙂,” she wrote, perhaps only half in jest. 

At the other end of the spectrum is Lakshmi Reddy Bloom, born in Bangalore, India, a friend I met in graduate school here in the United States. “It hit me with a loud, ‘jumbo-jet-sized’ thud that I am a person whose entire life has been defined by movements across the globe,” she admits. Aside from her husband and two adult children in America, her closest family members “are scattered across the globe and are only embraceable after a long plane journey.” Her greatest sadness these past months came with the cancelation of a planned visit to Bangalore for her mother’s ninety-first birthday. “The smells, the sounds, the joy of that physical togetherness . . . I do not believe there is a virtual substitute.”

Lakshmi makes it clear, though, that her devotion to plane travel goes beyond maintaining family ties. “It has also enabled me to become the person I truly am, someone who deeply believes in the goodness of people and in their fundamental similarities. I have had the privilege of traveling to far corners of the world and eating, drinking, talking, and laughing with people of all walks of life.” She recalls the young mother in Beijing whom the Communist Party assigned to her family as a guide while her husband David, an economist and demographer, attended a health policy conference. Three days passed before the guide revealed her distress at being separated from her newborn child. “Her pain is with me to this day,” Lakshmi acknowledges.

Then there was Lakshmi’s visit to the Vatican. “I shook hands with the Pope! I found myself in tears, trying to summon up something to say to him after his moving speech about the importance of education that can transform the work of the hands, the heart, and the mind.”

Next Lakshmi recalls a family in Mexico, hosts to her daughter, Sonali, on a study trip abroad. The visits continued in both directions, and the family, Lakshmi says, has become “our family.” She owes these bonds to jet travel. “I couldn’t have come to truly know them—so that I hold them close to my heart—without this.”

The Blooms’ son, Sahil, has a less idyllic view of jet travel, at least as it relates to his work as vice president of Altamont Capital Partners, a private equity firm in Palo Alto, California. Before COVID-19, his travel schedule was relentless. “Last year, I made twelve separate trips to Europe, as well as countless domestic trips, generally spending three to four days per week on planes to different locations,” he says. “I accumulated something like 400,000 miles on United [Airlines] last year alone.”

Sahil readily tallies the monetary and human toll of his European trips. “Each of these trips would cost about $20,000 (flights, hotels, food, etc.) and take a week of my life. I had twelve such trips last year for a total cost of about $240,000 and twelve weeks of life.” The wasted time and money were enormous.

This changed radically once COVID-19 brought domestic and international travel to a near-halt. “During the lockdowns, I have been able to accomplish the same such meetings in a virtual context in the span of a single day (albeit a tiring one). While it might be perhaps eighty to ninety percent as effective—being in person is always a bit better, on the margin—that is a massive savings of time and expense.”

Even once a vaccine is developed and travel constraints ease, Sahil anticipates that his long-distance journeys will be cut by about half. “As an industry, we have realized that many of the meetings we forced ourselves to fly to were perhaps unnecessary and could be handled virtually, so I do expect there to be a reset.”

For some, air travel is the glue that holds far-flung families together. To others, it offers outdoor adventure, natural exploration, a window onto history, and an opportunity to reach across national, cultural, and religious boundaries in search of greater human understanding. To others still, it can be a useful but time-consuming cost of doing business. Whatever the motivation, scaling back air travel will take conscious and conscientious recalibration, aided by our growing awareness that climate change poses a global menace, to be ignored at our collective peril.

Lakshmi framed this challenge beautifully. “Maybe what you are asking me to do is to commit to love the earth and its inhabitants more, through an investment in their environmental future. And out of love, yes, I can embrace and commit to this . . . . And also work for a future with my nuclear family where we are able to stay in close proximity!”


About the Author 

Philip Warburg, a Senior Fellow at Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy, is the author of two books published by Beacon PressHarvest the Wind and Harness the Sun.