How we fly today
How much do we fly?
From 2001 until the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of passengers at German airports increased continuously, apart from a slight decline in 2009 and 2010 due to the financial crisis. In 2018, over 247 million people boarded, disembarked or transferred at German airports. Compared to 2001, this constituted an increase of 72%. More than a quarter of all passengers took off or landed at Germany’s largest airport in Frankfurt/Main.
Globally, air transport and the associated environmentally harmful emissions have grown even more strongly. For example, there were more than 4.3 billion passengers in 2018, which was two and a half times as many passengers as in 2000.
How many passengers and how many kilometers travelled?
Air travel in Germany accounted for 6% of total passenger kilometres travelled in 2018 (the passenger transport volume is calculated by multiplying the number of people carried by the distance travelled). At first glance, this does not sound like much, but flying is by far the most climate-damaging means of transport. In addition, aviation is growing much faster than all other modes of passenger transport: between 2001 and 2018, it increased by over 60% overall to 70 billion passenger kilometres in Germany, while kilometres travelled in total passenger transport increased only by approx. 11% .
Air travel has also grown steadily in the EU. Measured in passenger kilometres, it increased by approx. 40% overall between 2000 and 2017. Europe accounted for about a quarter of global aviation in 2018 measured as passenger transport volume. However, the world’s largest growth in annual passenger numbers was recorded in China in that year.
Air freight transport
The volume of goods and mail transported by air has also hugely increased. In 2018, there were just under five million tons of goods and mail transported by plane in Germany, which is double the amount transported in 2001 . However, the goods transported by air accounted for less than 1% of freight transported to Germany and approx. 1.5% of freight exported from Germany in 2018. High-value goods such as electrical equipment, machinery, optical equipment, pharmaceuticals and jewellery accounted for a large share of these goods.
Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on air transport
In 2019, the German Federal Ministry of Transport predicted that the number of air passengers in Germany would rise from 223 million to 244 million between 2018 and 2021, constituting a growth of 9% within three years . And in 2018, the International Civil Aviation Organization ICAO assumed that aviation would grow globally by 40% by 2038. At that time, no one could have foreseen the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact in 2020. Its effects were and are severe for the airline industry: in April 2020, only approx. 30% of planned flights took off worldwide . In Germany and the EU, air transport came to an almost complete standstill in the spring of that year. In Germany, the EU and globally, fewer than half the number of aircraft are expected to be in the air in 2020 overall compared to 2019.
Global freight transport also substantially decreased as a result of the pandemic, plummeting by around 30% in April 2020 compared to the previous year. Nevertheless, the demand for flights carrying freight could not be met because the supply of belly freight, which is transported in passenger aircraft, slumped even more.
Due to the dynamic development of the pandemic, it is difficult to forecast the development of aviation in the years ahead. Current forecasts suggest that it will take several years for air transport to return to the levels reached before the Covid-19 pandemic. We should not return, however, to the unchecked growth of air transport.
Where do we fly to?
In 2018, almost three quarters of all passengers in Germany flew to other European countries, with most of them flying to Spain.
Globally, the Asia-Pacific region accounted for the largest share of global aviation in 2019, with connections within Asia accounting for 33%. Intra-Chinese aviation accounts for 13% of global aviation; connections in North America and Europe each account for 21%. The busiest long-haul route in 2019 was the axis between New York and San Francisco.
Domestic flights in Germany
Approx. 20% of passengers from Germany take a domestic flight. Many domestic flights are also feeders to major airports. Overall, domestic flights in Germany cause a climate impact of approx. 2.4 million tons of CO₂ equivalents (taking into account all the climate-damaging effects of air travel) – that’s more than seven times the climate impact of equivalent journeys by rail.
Better to travel by train
Domestic flights in Germany of less than 600 kilometres could and should be shifted to rail. This would have affected 18.5 million passengers in 2015. For a quarter of them, travelling by rail would have been even faster than by air. Half of these travellers could also reach their destination by train in less than four hours – in other words, without losing any time and with the option of making business trips within a day. Incidentally, many people are in favour of banning short-haul flights. 62% of people are in favour of such a ban in Europe, for example; in America and China, 49% and 80% of people are in favour of such a ban.
Around 1.6 million tons of greenhouse gases could be saved by shifting a large share of domestic flights to rail travel. In Germany, there are already speedy alternatives by rail on many routes, and many of these routes already have enough capacity to take the additional passengers to their destinations. Nevertheless, capacities also need to be expanded further. For example, the reduction in the travel time between Berlin and Munich due to a new high-speed rail route has shown that such a modal shift is possible if good alternatives are available. On this route, rail has supplanted air travel as the most important mode of transport.
In addition, the seamless onward travel of passengers from long-haul flights to travel by rail should be ensured. To this end, the hubs of rail traffic – i.e. Hamburg, Cologne, Frankfurt am Main, Mannheim and Munich – must be further expanded; connections to smaller hubs also need to be improved. In this way, unprofitable regional airports could be closed because there would be a fast rail link from all regions to airports with a long-distance network.
There is still much to be done across Europe in this respect: connections need to be further expanded and, in particular, more night train services need to be available.
The Covid-19 pandemic could make flying less important. Video conferencing has proven to be a good alternative, especially to domestic travel. France and Austria have taken a step forward by making financial support for Air France and Austrian Airlines during the pandemic conditional on the airlines reducing the number of domestic flights they offer. Unfortunately, the financial assistance provided to Lufthansa by the German government was not linked to a corresponding requirement to reduce domestic flights. Germany should take measures to shift domestic flights to rail. Even though the climate impact of long-haul flights is much greater than that of short-haul flights, domestic flights are unnecessary and should be avoided.
Why do we fly?
Most people in Germany fly for private reasons: for holidays or leisure. This includes, for example, taking a weekend city break in Budapest, visiting friends in Paris or accompanying a favourite football club to the Champions League match in Barcelona. About 28% of air travel is for holidays that last at least five days.
Leisure or work?
In 2017, 60 million trips were made by passengers boarding or transferring planes in Germany. Around 38% of them were travelling for business. While business trips account for the largest share of flights within Germany at around 65%, approx. 60% of trips to other European countries and 70% of intercontinental travel are holiday trips. In the future, these can be made using more climate-friendly modes of transport than aviation.
Globally, there is no comprehensive data on the reasons why people take a flight. However, one trend that can be observed is that the number of business trips has decreased in recent years, while the number of so-called VFR flights has increased; VFR stands for visiting friends and relatives, i.e. partners, friends and family members who are increasingly scattered around the globe.
The military accounts for a share of the flights taken; this share constituted 1.4% of flights in Germany before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Air freight transport
Air transport also includes the transportation of air freight, which is the fastest way to get goods from one place to another. While a container ship takes three to four weeks to travel from Asia to Europe, goods can be at their destination the following day when they’re flown there. Air freight is transported either in cargo planes or as belly freight in passenger planes. In addition to perishable goods such as fresh food or cut flowers, the transported goods are particularly capital-intensive. The goods can be sold more quickly this way and capital commitment and the turnaround time can be reduced, and the total cost of putting goods on the market can be decreased despite the significantly higher transport costs. Express deliveries by courier, express and parcel services and the urgent delivery of spare parts also require the high speed offered by air transport. For the globalized world of commodities without warehousing, air freight transport is therefore very important. Nevertheless, there are alternatives.
German exports constitute only a small share of air freight
In 2019, approx. 2.4 million tons of freight and mail were transported abroad by plane from German commercial airports – primarily to the USA – and around 2.2 million tons arrived in Germany from abroad, primarily from China. This means that air freight accounts for only a very small portion of the volume of freight transport; German exports are transported most often by road and ship.
In terms of general trade, i.e. imports and exports excluding transit trade and intermediate transport of exports, air freight accounted for 0.2% (imports) and 1.5% (exports) of the total weight of freight transported in 2018. In terms of the value of goods, the share of air freight was 9.7% (imports) and 12.8% (exports) due to the higher value of goods. However, the volume of goods transported by air freight to and from Germany increased constantly before the Covid-19 pandemic; between 2012 and 2018 alone, it increased by 16%.
When discussing air freight, we must keep in mind the connection with passenger transport. In recent years, approx. half of all goods were transported as belly freight in passenger aircraft. If passengers increasingly stay on the ground, it will have an impact on air freight capacity: In the course of the Covid-19 crisis, for example, the belly freight capacity plummeted internationally by 75%, which led to an increase in prices. As a result, prices were 40% higher for air freight to China in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the last quarter of 2019.
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, air transport had been increasing globally for a long time. But while more passenger kilometres are travelled in the air each year, people around the world participated in this trend to very different degrees. Most flights are taken by a small share of people from the world’s wealthiest societies.
It is estimated that only about 3% of all people fly a year. While frequent flyers take over a hundred flights a year, the vast majority of people have never seen the inside of an aeroplane. Even within affluent countries, people fly to different extents. A British study shows that people with higher incomes fly disproportionately often compared to those with lower incomes. The introduction of low-cost flights in the 1990s did not significantly change this.
Most passenger kilometres occur in the Asia-Pacific region; this region is predicated to have the strongest growth in the decades ahead. This is due to the rapid expansion of the middle class in this region.
In terms of per capital emissions, the share of aviation emissions is substantial among the segment of the population with high GHG emissions. Among the 1% of people who generate the highest emissions – a total of 55 tons of CO₂ equivalents per capita on average – air travel accounts for 22.6 tons of CO₂ equivalents, or about 41% of emissions. This group, which benefits most from the subsidization of aviation, encompasses those with the highest incomes. If the indirect climate effects of flying are added, the share of air travel in the total emissions of this group roughly trebles.
In countries of the Global South, in contrast, the question of whether or not to fly does not even arise for many due to a lack of money and/or they are not connected to an airport. In addition, visa regulations around the world considerably restrict the freedom of travel for the majority of people living there. EU citizens can travel to an average of 183 countries without a visa; citizens of the African continent, however, can travel to only 61 countries.
How high are the greenhouse gas emissions generated by flying?
International air travel from Germany caused a total of 29.4 million tons of CO₂ emissions in 2018, excluding domestic flights. It accounted for approx. 3.4% of Germany’s total emissions that year, which is as much as Los Angeles annually emits, with a population of nearly four million. CO₂ emissions from intra-European aviation and the EU share of international flights accounted for 182 million tons in 2018, which corresponds to approx. 4% of the total emissions of the EU-28. Emissions from international flights from the EU have also increased almost continuously since 1990.
Globally, aviation accounted for a total of 2.4% of anthropogenic CO₂ emissions in 2018. In 2019, this amounted to 914 million tons of CO₂. That may not sound like much, but it is problematic from a climate protection perspective for several reasons:
CO₂ emissions are only part of the story of aviation’s harmful effects on the climate. Its actual contribution to global heating is about three times greater than the contribution of CO₂ emissions alone. This is because aviation has other climate-damaging effects, for example through cloud formation. According to calculations made by Oeko-Institut, aviation was responsible for a total of about 5.5% of anthropogenic climate heating in 2018.
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, emissions from aviation had been steadily growing; between 2013 and 2018 they increased globally by about 5% annually. Forecasts suggest further exponential growth in the decades ahead; whether the Covid-19 pandemic will reverse this trend in aviation remains questionable. In 2020, climate-damaging emissions from aviation are expected to continue to rise after the pandemic unless more rigorous measures are taken to regulate the sector and develop sustainable technologies.
While emissions have grown steadily, technologies for climate-neutral flying are still not within reach. This is not compatible with the global decarbonization that is necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and limit global heating as much as possible. Without drastic and rapid measures to reduce aviation, it is possible that it accounts for a large share of global emissions in the future.
If aviation were a country, it would have been in the top ten countries with the highest emissions in 2019. However, unlike countries that have committed under the Paris Agreement to reducing their emissions, making their climate targets more ambitious in the future and developing long-term strategies to decarbonize their economies, the emissions reduction target for aviation is very weak. Under the International Civil Aviation Organization ICAO, the participating countries have only been able to agree on limiting the growth of air transport beyond existing levels. Targets for reducing emissions from air transport have not been defined; this is not compatible with the goals of the Paris Agreement to limit global heating to a temperature increase that is well below 2°C.