Will France’s flight ban work?

May 15, 2024 Transport

To meet climate targets, France has banned domestic flights on routes where fast trains are available. As part of the TSE Infrastructure and Network Center’s mission to promote sustainable and cost-effective transport policies, a new study by Xavier Bonilla and Marc Ivaldi offers a preliminary analysis of the impact of the ban on travel choices and the environment.

Which flights are now banned?

In 2019, President Emmanuel Macron created the Citizens' Climate Convention. Its recommendations led to a ban on domestic flights if there is a rail alternative that takes less than two and a half hours. There also needs to be enough trains scheduled on the same day so that passengers can spend at least eight hours at their destination. The legislation, which came into force in 2023, has resulted in the cancellation of three air routes that connected Paris with Nantes, Lyon and Bordeaux.

Why do we need to switch from planes to trains?

According to the French government, air travel emits 72 times more CO2 per person than train travel for the same distance. Similarly, a 2019 study using German data estimated that a flight ban could reduce CO2 emissions by up to 22%. On the other hand, air travel is much faster and requires less infrastructure. Research suggests that balancing the emissions from construction of a new railway requires that it be used for 10 million one-way trips every year.

However, existing train routes can often provide a viable alternative. A 2021 study found that nearly a third of domestic plane journeys in France could be done by train without increasing travel time by more than 15%.  About 26.5 million seats (3%) on flights within Europe could be replaced by alternatives without increasing travel time.

Should environmental policy focus on short or long flights?

In general, scholars argue that short flights pollute more per passenger-km because planes burn more fuel during take-off and landing. However, long flights may also suffer from a poor fuel-to-distance ratio as they often have less seats to accommodate more business passengers and use heavier planes. It’s also important to note that short flights (under 500km) represent 28% of all flights departing from Europe but only 6% of total fuel consumption. In contrast, long-haul flights (more than 4,000km), for which there is no alternative transport mode, represent about 6% of departures but 47% of kerosene burnt.

Is Europe waking up to the true costs of cheap flights?

France is the first country in Europe to enforce a flight ban, but other countries also have the aviation sector in their sights. During the pandemic, several governments were able to overcome industry resistance to environmental measures by combining them with financial assistance for airlines. In 2020, Austria set a minimum price of €40 for air tickets to fight against social and environmental dumping, and a €30 tax was imposed on all journeys of less than 350km. At the same time, Germany increased taxes on domestic and intra-EU flights by 75% to speed up its green transition. Spain is also considering a French-style ban with more draconian proposals including outlawing cargo flights of more than 100,000 tons per year when there is a train alternative of less than six hours, or four hours for passenger flights.

How does your paper approach this subject?

We use 2018-2019 government data to study the impact of the French flight ban on the environment and individuals' mobility choices. We seek to understand which passengers would take the train, plane, car, or other transport methods, and the reasons for their travel decisions. Our model allows us to quantify the influence of income, travel distance, travel purpose, and temporal factors. To limit our study to trips where the comparison would be relevant, we only study trips of more than 300km.

Is the French ban an effective way to reduce carbon emissions? Or is it largely symbolic?

Our descriptive analysis emphasizes the relatively small proportion of travelers impacted by the ban. As observed in the media, most people did not primarily rely on planes for travel on the banned routes. For Paris connections with Lyon and Nantes, cars remained the dominant mode of transport, while Paris-Bordeaux saw a significant preference for trains due to time concerns. Air travel accounted for only 3% of trips on the banned routes.

Although airplanes have a higher climate impact per person, the total emissions generated by cars on the banned routes are between 2.5 and 4.5 times higher. It is therefore crucial for the government to also target emissions from cars, which are the main means of transport in France, even for some longer distances and even when high-speed trains are available.

Why are travel preferences important?

To assess the impact of transport policies, it is crucial to understand why people choose a particular mode of travel. Existing research suggests that young people are more concerned about the environment. However, a 2023 study found that among Italian university students, having an environmentally oriented degree does not impact the probability of using more sustainable transport as a tourist, but distance and type of destination (rural or urban) play a major role.

Our econometric analysis shows that income is a pivotal determinant for some transport choices, especially cars, up to a certain level. However, our findings challenge the conventional wisdom that income significantly influences air travel decisions. Income also has less influence on decisions to use trains.

We find that reason for travel is another crucial factor, with work and vacation trips enhancing the likelihood of air travel while cars are preferred for visiting relatives. Distance holds minimal sway over decisions to travel by car, which may seem surprising since one would expect long trips to discourage car use. As expected, longer distances discourage train use, coupled with a corresponding increase in flight preference.

How would you like to see research develop in this area?

Our study highlights the complexity of assessing environmental impacts and the necessity of comprehensive policy evaluations. While it offers valuable insights into travel choices, our analysis has certain limitations. Future research may better account for unobservable determinants, as well as incorporating broader contextual factors such as regional infrastructure development.

Price considerations can also significantly impact our travel choices. A model that includes price-related variables – such as ticket fares, subsidies or discounts – would allow us to better assess the trade-offs travelers make between cost and convenience. Understanding these choices will help to guide the development of cleaner, greener and more efficient transport systems.


FURTHER READINGBanning short-haul domestic flights: A preliminary assessment for France’ and other publications by Marc Ivaldi are available to view on the TSE website.

Article published in TSE Reflect, May 2024