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Germans are flying less - is this the “Greta effect” in action?

Updated: Mar 10, 2021

According to the German Airports Association (ADV), the number of passengers on German domestic flights and flights within Europe fell by 1.9% to 47.1 million in 2019.

The rise of environmental activist Greta Thunberg has recently given rise to the term ‘Flugscham’ (‘flight shame’), the act of shunning air travel - and has caused many people to keep their feet firmly on the ground.

But just how far have climate considerations affected the numbers of flyers, and, are we likely to see further reductions in passenger numbers moving forwards from now?

It’s clear, at least by one measure, that the move has been deliberate on the part of many. According to a survey conducted by the European Investment Bank (EIB), 80% of consumers in Germany intend to travel less by plane. The majority of those surveyed agreed that for journeys taking five hours or less, they would opt to take the train.

However, this survey gives us little idea of why consumers have had a change of heart.

Josie Le Blond, a writer for BBC Worklife, claims this decline has occurred due to the fact that growing numbers of Germans are taking long-distance trains and abandoning short-haul flights for climate protection purposes.

Although the ADV did still record a 1.8% growth in intercontinental passengers at German airports, which reflects the continued growth of long-distance air travel internationally, it measured a 12% drop in domestic flights in Germany in November 2019 compared to the previous year. In the same period, Deutsche Bahn reported record numbers of long-distance train passengers, with over 150 million people travelling far across the country using its train network in 2019.

Clearly, people are still making long-distance journeys, but in different ways.

17-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg has become the face of the movement against climate change, through ‘Fridays for Future’s strikes and speeches at major political events, such as the 2018 United Nations Climate Summit and 2019 United Nations Climate Conference.

Thunberg is a vocal opposition to flying – refusing to fly in order to reduce her carbon footprint - and now travels using more sustainable modes of transport such as by train or boat.

In 2019, she famously sailed across the Atlantic Ocean for two weeks to attend the U.N. Climate Summit, arguing that: “by stopping flying, you … send a signal to other people around you that the climate crisis is a real thing.”

Greta Thunberg. Photo: Anders Hellberg via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Case in point, Malte Kleinwort, researcher at the Ruhr University Bochum, stated that he had often felt that he shouldn’t fly too much, but only began to feel “flight shame” after hearing Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s pleas for travellers to use more environmentally friendly modes of transport at a Fridays for Future demonstration.

Perhaps, Thunberg’s activism is tapping into pre-existing awareness that other modes of transport should be utilised in certain circumstances.

But there are also other factors at play here. Historically, passenger numbers in Germany have increased with rising economic prosperity. However, over the past three years economic growth has slowed.

Ralph Beisel, managing director of the ADV, is certain that “falling passenger numbers” are due instead to the “the declining German economy.” Germany’s economic growth slumped to a six-year low in 2019, as car industry exports suffered amid global trade conflicts.

More directly related to Germany’s flight passengers are the insolvencies of German airlines Germania and Air Berlin: Air Berlin filed for insolvency in 2017, after its main shareholder Etihad withdrew its financial support; In 2019, Berlin-based airline Germania was also bankrupted due to fuel price rises and unexpected aircraft maintenance costs.

Germania - no longer in business. Photo: Ken Fielding via Flickr, CC BY-SA 3.0 Not to mention Germanwings pilot strikes at the end of 2019 - action occurred across three days over the New Year period, forcing the cancellation of around 180 flights, as Unabhängige Flugbegleiter Organisation (UFO) pushed for higher pay and better benefits for its members – nor the Boeing 737 Max crisis.

Owing to the delayed delivery of the Boeing 737 Max aircrafts (with newbuilds requiring additional checks after recent catastrophic crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia), Ryan Air will fly 5 million fewer passengers this year.

Clearly, economic circumstances affected flight passenger numbers in 2019.

All the while, travel fairs on trains have been slashed this year by 10% on many services; Deutsche Bahn is targeting 100% renewable electricity to power trains on inter-city routes; and UBS has claimed Europe may be set for a “high-speed rail renaissance” – with deregulation aiding better services and cheaper fares.

This offering, in comparison to the turbulence (pardon the pun) in the German air-travel industry, has no doubt made train travel all the more appealing to consumers.

Whether the work of Greta Thunberg and co. influences demand, or widespread feelings of ‘flight shame’ set in across society, are as of yet unclear. According to Barbara Peterson, a writer for Conde Nast Traveller, flight shaming will encourage more airlines to focus on offsetting carbon emissions (see EasyJet) and will spur more passengers on to consider travel alternatives.

The airline industry has committed itself to reducing net carbon emissions to half of 2005 levels by 2020. However, Peterson believes that for now flight shaming “hasn’t put the brakes on consumers’ wanderlust.”

As of early 2020, the continued economic stagnation, ongoing trade conflicts, uncertainties caused by Brexit and the consequences of the coronavirus epidemic will likely contribute to depressed flight demand for now.

But will the reduction in German flight passengers will continue into the 2020s? Only time will tell.

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