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Will the UK Ban Internal Flights Like France?

A BA plane on the runway being loaded with luggage
Author: Samuel Beckingham
Updated: Jun 07, 2023
3 minutes read

In an environmentally conscious move, France has taken the decision to ban internal flights that can be taken by train in 2 ½ hours. It’s taken two years for policymakers to implement the law, but some critics don’t believe it goes far enough. Stricter rules were proposed by climate activists, such as upping the limit to 4 hours, which is why some believe the French Government doesn’t go far enough.

In 2019, Emmanuel Macron set up a Citizens’ Convention on Climate, which included 150 public members. Of the measures discussed, people were pushing for domestic flights to be scrapped where an equivalent train journey could be completed in under 4 hours. The reduction came after pressure from various regions in France and Air France-KLM. As a result, only three flight routes have been impacted, and they already had a reduced service.

“On average, the plane emits 77 times more CO₂ per passenger than the train on these routes, even though the train is cheaper and the time lost is limited to 40 minutes.”

French consumer group UFC-Que Choisir

But what does this mean for the UK?

When Rishi Sunak was chancellor, he implemented a cut in the domestic air duty, making internal UK flights cheaper. This only came into effect in April, but it’s a move in the opposite direction to France. While critics say the ban doesn’t go far enough, it could have a knock-on effect in other countries.

If the UK were to implement the same policy as France, however, not much would change. There are currently only two internal flights that can be alternatively taken by train that are under 2 ½ hours: London to Manchester and London to Leeds. According to Trainline, London to Manchester can be reached by train in 2 hours and 6 minutes, while London to Leeds can be done in 2 hours and 10 minutes.

As far as meaningful change is considered, replacing two internal UK flights won’t go far enough to reduce emissions. However, because the UK is 2.3 times smaller than France, the country may have to look at extending the criteria for train times. Upping the limit to 4 hours via train and making sure that these tickets are subsidised could be a great way to avoid needless carbon emissions from flights.

The question is now whether other countries will follow in France’s footsteps. According to research from Intergenerational Foundation last year, if the UK adopted the same approach with a limit of 4 ½ hours for train travel, it could cut emissions from aviation by 33%. Not only this, but travel times would only be affected by less than 30 minutes. Even a third of these internal journeys are just as fast or faster than by plane.

Spain considered a similar policy in 2021, with a limit of 2 ½ hours via train, but this had a deadline of 2050. Estimates have said it could save the country up to 2 million tonnes of carbon emissions, so it might bring the policy forwards, much to the dismay of airlines. In a similar vein, Austria, Germany and Belgium have all toyed with the idea to disinsentivise short domestic flights. If the European Union were to implement a blanket policy across all member states, it could mean the start of meaningful carbon emission reductions from air travel.

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