climate change transport

The frequent flyer levy

As we’ve discussed before, flying is one of the single most damaging things we can in an era of climate change. That’s not a message that’s got through to the government, who persist with airport expansion plans. And it’s not got much traction with the general public either – not when there are such cheap flights available to sunnier parts of the world.

One of the problems with aviation is that it is under-taxed. It is cheaper than it should be, given its contribution to climate change. Jet fuel is untaxed by international agreement – the only fossil fuel that enjoys that benefit. VAT doesn’t apply to air travel either. However, increasing the tax on flights would penalise ordinary people just trying to go on holiday, and that’s never going to be politically attractive.

Here’s a new idea that launched last week with a little explanatory website: a frequent flyer levy. Under this proposal, everybody would get one tax-free return flight a year. The more flights you took beyond that, the more tax you would pay. People who flew regularly would pay more, and the income raised could be used to support alternatives to flying. It is, after all, a relatively small percentage of people who fly regularly. In any given year, half of us in Britain won’t fly at all, while 15% of the population take 70% of all flights.


In an open letter, the campaigners from a variety of organisations summed it up thus:

We are calling today to replace Air Passenger Duty with a ‘frequent flyer levy’ that taxes travellers according to how often they fly, shifting the burden away from families flying to their one annual holiday and onto the frequent flyers who are driving expansion. Our research shows that this ‘polluter pays’ approach would enable the UK to meet our climate targets without making flying the preserve of the rich – and without needing to build any new runways.

At this point there’s usually a muttering of ‘unworkable’ from people who’ve thought about it for all of three seconds and don’t wish to hear about it again. If you were about to mutter such a thing, the full proposal has some suggestions on how it could be implemented, tracking it through passport numbers and making it a painless part of buying an airline ticket.

For more information, see or look them up on Twitter.


  1. Well, we known that using Lord Stern’s figures that APD actually raises more than its environmental costs. Since we want to cut in the least economically damaging ways that suggests flying is a net benefit.

    There doesn’t seem to be any valuation as to the cost of enforcing this new tax, nor the possible losses of companies that have lots of travellers relocating to a country not imposing this FFT (and the cuts to lovely public services that the loss of tax revenues would entail).

    Give that flying to tax havens is apparently a problem and NEF are involved I think we can file this in the round filing cabinet on the floor.

    1. If you won’t consider it because you don’t like one of the proposers, that’s your loss. It leaves you defending an unpopular tax that’s ripe for reconsidering.

      Not sure who these companies are that have lots of travellers and might relocate. Or why they haven’t relocated already, given plenty of countries don’t have airport taxes.

    2. Consulting firms do lots of flying and are fairly footloose.

      I have considered the proposals (more than you as you missed the tax havens nonsense). It is just bad policy.Just because a tax is unpopular doesn’t mean it should be replaced by a worse one, motivated by envy where one of the main aims is to punish non domain flying to tax havens.

      1. So you don’t think this is off hand rejection I will give you two of the reasons why this is a bad policy.

        The first is the principle that APD is a Pigovian pollution tax. This would decouple the tax from the pollution making it subjective and thus less justifiable.

        The second is practical. This would require a new government database (that seamlessly links into the existing government and airline systems). No cost is given in this report. Since the history of govt IT projects is not good I think we should expect it to be costly.

        1. The information required is already collected by the Home Office, so it’s a matter of sharing that information with the airlines. Not a new database. Since the airlines would process it as part of the ticket buying process (like APD), it wouldn’t require more government IT systems.

          Yes, APD is a form of Pigovian taxation, but so is the levy. It just shifts the focus from flying to frequent flying.

          1. Really, how is your experience of government IT integration projects? Especially requiring intergrating into dozens of private company systems. That sounds very expensive. And the campaigners say a new database would be required.

            They seem to have no privacy worries about the Home Office sharing personal data with HMRC. Not to mention the privacy concerns about letting airlines and booking intermediaries know everyone’s flight history (this would be required to charge you the right duty when you book)

            This could only be levied on flights out of the UK as you don’t need a passport to fly internally. Unless they plan to require everyone to have a passport (might as well have ID card as would amount to the same).

            Also APD currently rises the further you go. Under this, 5 flight to Berlin would cost more than one to Sydney, despite that releasing more CO2

            This isn’t thought through. Not by them or you.

            1. Have you read the proposal documents? It addresses some of your concerns. For instance, they mention two ways to cover internal flights. One would be to require your passport number to buy a ticket. Another would be to allow driving licence numbers on internal flights.

              They also discuss the fact that it doesn’t rise with further distances, and they acknowledge that APD can be justified that way. This is trying to do something different. It is aiming to reduce demand for aviation from the top, from frequent flyers, rather than across the board. (For that reason, it’s unlikely to get any attention. The government clearly doesn’t want to reduce demand, regardless of climate targets)

              They don’t have all the answers. This is a proposal, after all, not a feasibility study. That comes later. But you do look a bit silly insisting you’ve thought it through and nobody else has, while raising questions that are specifically addressed in the documents.

          2. So if you don’t have a passport or driving licence you can’t fly? And not only sharing data between HO & HMRC, DVLA as well now! Liberty means nothing if it raises tax revenue and we can bash people we don’t like.

            Proposals need to touch reality. Again you have seen a shiny lefty idea, jumped on it without thinking it through and then backpedal “I don’t have the answers, t’s a proposal”

            1. How many people do you think there are that fly internally but don’t have a passport or a driving licence? And can you even get on a plane today with neither of those as a form of ID? I haven’t tried, but I doubt it. You’re scraping around here.

              I think this is an interesting proposal and worth considering, nothing more. It might not work, but you’re not qualified to say so any more than I am, especially since you haven’t bothered to read the documents.

              But let’s not bother arguing about it any more. Your use of the word lefty tells me all I need to know, and what a pointless, debate-destroying label to apply. You’ve seen the involvement of NEF, seen red and that’s it – in the bin with the idea.

          3. I call it lefty because it is unfairly aimed at the rich and driven by envy, driving roughshod over civil liberties while claiming an undeserved moral high ground.

            Now I take civil liberties seriously and Don’t want further restrictions. According to easyJet you can travel on a pension book, or CitizenCard to name but two others.

            Now these are all on different databases and bringing them together gives real privacy concerns, not to mention the huge cost. Linking two databases is expensive, 5 or 6+ is going to be billions for a tax that won’t raise much in the grand scheme of things.

          4. You don’t think that some of the desire to stop rich people doing things (or make them pay more) isn’t driven by envy. What a naive view of the world you have.

            1. Not for me. If anything I pity most rich people.
              Your technicalities are so trivial and you make everything so personal I don’t see what possible nourishment you get from this blog at the same time confusing and frustrating others but as you often put it is a liberty and we should be appreciative of the different angle.

          5. I’m sure most rich people will be glad of the condescension of your pity.

            Details are to be brushed aside. Who cares if something is workable, as long as we can show our greater morals?

            1. I think envy does come into the equation for some people, but not here. Why on earth would anyone write reports and set up websites and start campaigns out of envy? If envy is the motive, why work hard for anything other than yourself?

              But since we’ve descended into casting aspersions, let’s leave it there.

      2. If they’re so footloose, there’s no reason why they wouldn’t have gone already. APD is pretty steep on long-haul in particular, and there are plenty of countries where there is little or no airport duty. Ireland’s pretty close.

        The tax havens thing obviously rang your bell and now you can’t see past it. It’s one of about 20 reasons they mention, and since they don’t get a mention at all in the actual policy pdfs, it’s clearly not an important one.

        There is some silly rhetoric on the website – stuff about rich people hogging the sky or destroying the environment for fun. That’s unhelpful. I didn’t mention that stuff because I don’t agree with it, not because I didn’t notice it.

  2. As someone who flies a lot (with a lot of guilt) I think this is a great idea it would shift thought processes and logistics of business (and the UN) to come up with better alternatives than flying everyone everywhere.

    For those heathens like me the very least we can do is to check out from Canada where you can calculate and price your carbon with a minimum of $20 per tonne – this doesn’t mean we are all square now but it is an attempt to patch a piece of the hole.

    Although it will take me 3 weeks not 3 hours and 30 times more in cost I’m loving my current overland journey from Istanbul to London… and certainly try to go by land when and where possible.

  3. I personally think this is a good idea. I also think that if people had more flexibility with their work schedules, then they could take longer trips. For example, traveling only once per year, but do it for a month or two instead of take 3-4 separate short trips a year. I’m not saying that companies should offer this much time off for the same salary, but allow employees to take less pay for more time off. I am in a professional field and it is really difficult to find a position that is not your typical salary position.

    Also, while flying is destructive, cars much, much worse than flying when you consider building the infrastructure, sprawl, more rooftops, more big box retailers, more parking lots, more urban heat island effect, more stormwater runoff, buying a new car every 5 years, reduced ridership on public transportation, obesity, air pollution, noise pollution, etc… I could go on. Even hybrids and electric vehicles are nowhere near being ‘green’ in my opinion. So, along with the frequent flier tax, let’s tax miles driven!

    1. agreed, cars are a much bigger problem, but we’re at a decision point on airports at the moment in Britain and it’s just the right time for new ideas.

      And I’m all for more flexibility with work. Not easy to implement, but we could do better.

  4. I try not to fly but sometimes you have to. To be honest though I have only flown around ten time in my life.

    But the question I asked and you mention is the price, and a fact for you it’s often cheaper to fly the length of England that use a train, which is hideously disappointing and show our governments priorities.

    I understand that planes are such a quick method of transporting and have made the world much smaller place. But I just can help but think all this has caused a ceased in development of other methods such as boats. They are the same as when I was a kid thirty years ago, why is there not development on this as everything else have moved on. Just think of the possibilities if they just invested some money into this

    1. The other neglected one is coaches. They actually work out more efficient than trains, given the infrastructure needs, but there’s been almost no investment at all in 50 years.

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