Airlines

Climate charity slams use of frequent flyer progammes by UK airlines

Climate change charity Possible has slammed UK airlines for the use of frequent flyer programmes (FFPs) in a new report.

The paper, titled ‘Pointless: The climate impact of frequent flyer status’, criticises airlines for encouraging customers to fly more, contributing to the impact of carbon emissions on the environment.

Possible is calling for an immediate end to the offering of frequent flyer programmes by airlines operating in the UK, along with the introduction of a frequent flyer levy and a kerosene tax.

The charity says this would help to reduce excessive, wasteful consumption of high-carbon travel by a small group of people, and more accurately reflect the real cost of flying for our climate.

The report shined the spotlight on UK airline giants British Airways and Virgin Atlantic for their use of FFPs. Possible say their ‘Gold Status’ programmes means taking flights that emit an average of 27 tonnes of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) every year – which is over 33 times higher than the average UK air travel footprint.

Alethea Warrington, a senior campaigner at Possible, said: “What we found from the two frequent flyer programmes which we looked at, which were Virgin Atlantic and British Airways, was that the different levels of membership are associated with really, really huge carbon footprints.

“So the range that we’re talking about was between about five tonnes per year and around 90 tonnes. And when you start to look at the lifetime memberships, it’s just absolutely astronomical levels of carbon emissions and we’re in a climate crisis.

“Last year it was so hot that runways melted. It’s clear the aviation industry has to play its part.”

She added that the level of emissions that FFPs encourage is very incredibly high.

“Airlines need to end this irresponsible behaviour, and stop awarding points for pollution”

ALETHEA WARRINGTON, SENIOR CAMPAIGNER AT POSSIBLE

Possible’s report found that a large number of people flying under these programmes were taking them just to keep their status.

“They’re emitting tens of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year” to gain access to benefits such as airport lounges, said Ms Warrington, adding: “Airlines need to end this irresponsible behaviour, and stop awarding points for pollution”.

Lifetime membership status can require a carbon footprint of more than 1800 tonnes of emissions per person for the highest FFP status level.

With 70 per cent of flights being taken by just 15 per cent of people, the charity is calling for legislative and regulatory action. 

Possible’s findings have led to it calling for a levy on FFPs targeting the small number of people who are flying often.

In response to the charity’s call for action, a British Airways spokesperson said: “Like many other airlines and brands globally, we recognise our customers’ loyalty by offering tangible benefits as part of our Executive Club programme.

“We acknowledge the need to balance this with our environmental commitments. As part of our BA Better World programme and commitment to net zero emissions by 2050, we have a clear roadmap and have introduced a range of measures, including investing in the development of sustainable aviation fuels, flying more fuel-efficient aircraft and investing in the growth of zero emissions hydrogen-powered aircraft.

“In addition, our CO2llaborate platform gives customers the option to calculate and address their emissions before, during or after their flight. This includes the purchase of sustainable aviation fuel and carbon removals credits.”

The airline challenges some of the claims in Possible’s report, claiming it does not pressure customers to fly in order to keep their Avios (customer reward currency).

British Airways added that the blunt taxation of kerosene or levies on FFPs are not the answer, instead arguing that an embedded carbon price would be more effective.

A Virgin Atlantic spokesperson said in response to the report: “Virgin Atlantic has been supporting the research and investment needed to find more sustainable ways to fly for over 15 years, investing billions in one of the youngest and most fuel-efficient fleets over the Atlantic and committing to net zero 2050.

“Long haul connectivity brings huge societal and economic benefits, and we believe that aviation can innovate forward to reduce the carbon impact of flying whilst continuing to connect families, businesses and communities around the world.   

 “Flying Club is our loyalty programme designed to reward those who choose Virgin Atlantic when they travel, rather than based on their flying frequency. Our customers can earn Virgin Points through a variety of purchases, from everyday items to higher value experiences, with the majority of points earned on the ground through our credit cards.”

They added: “When customers do choose to use their points to fly with us, they are doing so on one of the most fuel-efficient fleets across the Atlantic.” 

Virgin Atlantic also said it doesn’t expect customers to fly for reward points or status. It argues that the statistics used in the Possible report are misleading and largely based on generic emission factors that do not reflect the efficiency of its operation.

The airline calculates emissions using the more robust IATA methodology based on actual data including aircraft flown, cabin configuration and fuel burn.

Based on this, Virgin Atlantic emissions on a typical London Heathrow to New York JFK flight are up to 80 per cent lower than the emissions calculated in the Pointless report.

 

Image credit:  Frank Kovalchek/Flickr
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