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I Quit Flying for Good. Here's How It Changed My Life

We spoke to five people who have signed up to the stop flying pledge organised by advocacy group Flight Free UK​.

by Tristan Kennedy
30 November 2019, 11:08am

Photo: Cavan Images / Alamy Stock Photo

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

We can no longer kid ourselves that flying isn't a selfish act. It's not just that it's statistically the most carbon-intensive form of transport, it's visibly, audibly so. There's no way, in 2019, that you can strap in and listen to a jet engine rising from low whine to fuselage-juddering-wail without feeling at least a pang of guilt. Each time we take off, we're personally taking a chunk out of what little remains of the carbon budget that humanity as a whole has to stick to if we want to avoid the worst impacts of global heating. And for what? So we can get away on holiday a bit quicker?

Perhaps inevitably, the Scandinavians have come up with single word that encapsulates this feeling. Displaying the same level of linguistic precision that gave the world hygge (Danish for "the joy of cosiness") and kalsarikänni (Finnish for "the joy of drinking at home, alone, in your pants") the Swedes have coined flygskam, or "flight-shame". The concept has inspired a movement in Sweden, and been written about widely elsewhere.

While travelling more slowly and – to use a hoary old cliché – "enjoying the journey as much as the destination" sounds very appealing in theory, it's harder to know what giving up flying would actually look like in practise. Would it drastically alter your life? Would it cost you more? What do you do about work trips, overseas stag-dos or family holidays? I sat down with five Brits who've signed up to the stop flying pledge organised by advocacy group Flight Free UK, to ask them what they've sacrificed, what they'd gained and how their lives have changed.

roger tyers
Roger after "a brutal 90-hour train ride from Irkutsk to Moscow".

Roger Tyers, 37. Research Fellow, University of Southampton

VICE: As an academic, would you normally be expected to fly internationally for work?
Roger Tyers: Yes, definitely. It's very much expected that if you want to succeed in academia you will go and give conference talks, preferably the more international the better, and that you'll do international field work. There's pressure for you to travel, and specifically to fly.

When did you stop flying, and what were the factors that pushed you?
It was about a year ago. I'd been aware of this problem of aviation emissions for years, but there were two things last year: first of all I read the IPCC report that said we have maybe ten years to avoid irreversible climate change. Secondly, I'd seen that there were already people doing it. It's easier when it feels like you're not the only one – that you're part of something bigger.

Your research is in the sociology behind the adoption of eco-friendly lifestyle choices. It sounds like your own decisions are an interesting example?
Yeah, I mean we're all herd animals, aren't we? My PhD supervisor, for example, hasn't flown for a long time. She said that, in the past, maybe five or six years ago, she'd be a bit reluctant to tell people because they'd think, 'That's weird.' But in the last 12 months she's been quite proud to tell people she doesn't fly, because the social norms have shifted so much, even in the last year.

Has giving up flying felt like you’re making a sacrifice, professionally?
For me personally, no, but I've worked around it. This year I managed to go to China by train. I was going out to interview people for a piece of research on Chinese attitudes to sustainability, and I just thought it would be hypocritical for me to fly. I was lucky my university were quite supportive, and allowed me the time and money to do that. It was quite a wild ride and I saw things I would never have seen otherwise – crossing Mongolia, crossing the desert, seeing wild horses, wild camels. I met a load of interesting people too.

It sounds like it's almost expanded your horizons rather than limiting them?
Yeah, when you travel slowly you see all the places on your journey that you would just fly over otherwise, and you see things you wouldn't expect. Often those unexpected things turn out to be the most exciting or interesting.

Roughly how much do you earn? What tax bracket do you fall into?
I'm on 29 grand a year.

Overall, do you think the decision has cost you more or saved you money?
I probably have fewer holidays, but when I go I go for longer periods and make it more of an adventure. My days of weekend breaks to Berlin on cheap flights are over, but I'll make up for that by having longer breaks and going by train. One thing I will say is that there's lots of less well-off people who don't fly because they can't afford to. There's something a bit... it's a bit strange when we congratulate middle class people for not flying, like, "Oh, what an amazing bold step you've taken," when there's lots of poorer people who don't fly because they can't afford to. We don't call them heroes.

vipul patel

Vipul Patel, 51, Entrepreneur, Bath

VICE: What do you do for a living, and would it usually involve flying?
Vipul Patel: I used to work for a company called World Health Network, during the dotcom boom era, doing project management. I would be flying to the US, Singapore, Malaysia and lots of holidays in between. I used to think nothing of jumping on a plane and going somewhere. In a lot of ways I was the epitome of the problem. Now, I've just launched a business which is about helping people be less materialistic and reduce their consumption.

What led to that complete turnaround?
I had this sort of epiphany in 2006. I was at my parents' place in India and I'd just read a book by Michael Crichton, who I now know is a climate denier, but it was a very compelling book, talking about eco-terrorists making up the hoax of global warming. I was talking to my friend on the phone and I said: "I'm not so sure about this global warming." His exact words to me were: "Vip, don't be such a bloody idiot – even David Attenborough has come out and said global warming is a man-made phenomenon." I was so embarrassed that I enrolled myself in an Open University course on the environment, and that scared the life out of me.

Was that it then?
I did continue flying [occasionally] because my parents were in India, but in 2008 I decided, 'OK, I'm not going to fly this year.' And that was the year my mother died. You start thinking: 'Was it really worth it? You made this decision that you're not going to fly on a whim because of principles, and just look what happened.' The reality is there's nothing I could have done if I had gone – it was an accident, she was perfectly healthy. But I would have seen her before she passed away.

Wow, that's hard. Did you fly to India for her funeral?
No, I didn't. My logic was: everyone is going to be rushing out there to go to my mother's funeral, and I thought, 'Actually, the person who needs me now is my dad. He doesn't need me right now because he's got lots of people there, and I'm on the phone to him every day. But in a few months time, he's going to be very lonely. That's when I need to get on the plane.'

Did you get stick from your family for that?
A huge amount. But actually not from my father – he understood. If you're taking a "love flight", yes, you want to be there for someone's funeral, but actually it should be out of love for the person who's there. He used to work for Shell, and at first he found it very, very hard to understand my decisions. But as these conversations happened, his perspective on a lot of things changed. It was a fascinating process, and it made me think, 'If someone like my father who was very set in his ways could change... we're social animals, we have evolved to work in communities, we take cues from the people around us.' If we'd all started talking about [climate change] in 2006, we would be in a very different position to where we are now.

Roughly how much do you earn? What tax bracket do you fall into?
When I decided to stop flying I was in the top tax bracket, so on six figures-plus. Now I'm an entrepreneur, so I put all my money into the business.

Do you think the decision to stop flying has saved you money or cost you more overall?
I can very confidently say that it has saved me a fortune.

abi whitefield

Abi Whitefield, 23. PhD Student, St. Andrews

When did you give up flying, and did you fly a lot previously?
Abi Whitefield: Not really. I think the most [flights I took in a year] was six – three returns. But they were all for field trips or school trips. I haven't flown for the past four or five years. Part of it was out of fear, because I don't like flying, but also I became really aware of the environmental factors and realised that it's not a necessary part of my life.

You've blogged about not flying for an "essential" field trip while studying for your masters degree. Did that affect your studies at all?
I was very concerned about it, because I decided I didn't want to fly before I'd even applied for the course. I didn't really want to say it to the rest of the class, in case that caused some problems with my programme director. I did tell the head of Postgraduate Studies about it, though, and he's since tried to put in place processes to decide whether field trips should be abroad and if they're necessary.

Did your friends give you stick when they found out you weren’t going?
No, I told three or four of my friends and they were very supportive, and thought about doing the same. [In the end] they still went ahead, just because they felt like they might miss out. But I feel like not enough people know about this, and the Flight Free pledge hasn't had enough attention yet. The hippy association with the environment really [also] annoys me. I feel like that stops so many people taking part in environmental activities.

Do you feel you’ve missed out personally because you don’t fly?
I did feel like I missed out on a bit of a bonding experience with my coursemates. The other thing that I feel I'm missing out on is I have friends in America, and it would be nice to see them. But I haven't missed out on any big occasions. And I love getting on trains and exploring. I've mainly done it in the UK so far, but I've been to Paris on the Eurostar and also to the south of France to go skiing. It can be a great bonding experience, with your family or whoever you're with, and you get to see way more of a country from the ground than you would from the sky.

Roughly how much do you earn? What tax bracket would you fall into?
My only income is a scholarship, and as a student I don't get taxed.

Do you think, overall, giving up flying has saved you money, or cost you?
Train tickets can be pretty expensive, but I just make sure I'm organised – like booking them as soon as they come out. I think my average journey home from St Andrews to Suffolk costs about £40, and that's first class. Which must be less than the flight.

gope walker

Gope Walker, 44. Self-employed businessman, Oxford ("but still a Geordie")

VICE: What do you do for a living?
Gope Walker: I run my own consultancy, working in mobile telecoms. I've got clients in Ireland, I've got clients in Guatemala, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Colombia. We've had clients in Turks & Caicos and the Caiman Islands. In fact, I've actually only got one UK client.

That sounds like it would normally involve a lot of flying. How often did you used to fly?
Yeah, and I'm a triathlon coach as well, so I'd be on triathlon or cycling camps maybe twice a year. Most years I would do maybe a dozen return flights. In 2016, for example, I was in Colombia for work, and then I went from there to Miami, then to the Caimans, then back to the UK. And then in March I was doing warm weather training in Lanzarote, in April I was doing warm weather training in Mallorca… roughly 12 return flights, so maybe 20 flights in all. I'm a terrible human being, mate.

Do you feel like you’ve given up a lot by stopping then?
Not really. I can do all of my consulting for work online, really. I work in the IT industry, I can control your mouse from where I'm sat in Oxford. I mean, obviously I'll probably never go to Thailand again, I'll never go to New Zealand again, but I just felt like I don't need to.

What about the triathlon trips and cycling holidays?
Well I've kind of flipped it on its head. I do this charity bike ride in Europe – it's in the Black Forest in Germany next year – and I thought: 'You know what, I'm going to cycle there.' It's 1,000km, so I'm going to take a week off work, but rather than just A to B I want to actually see some places. I spoke to a few of the guys I do it with, all senior businessmen, and a lot of them are really interested in doing it with me. It's no longer travel, it's an adventure.

Roughly how much do you earn? What tax bracket do you fall into?
I’m doing alright – I'm not eating Tesco value beans. It depends how much I take out the business. I'll take out what I need, and I take out about 50 grand a year, because I honestly don’t need any more.

Do you think giving up flying will save you money or cost you more?
From a business point of view it's probably going to save me a shedload, but I'm pretty sure, overall, it's going to end up costing me more. It’s kind of like if you’re going to buy organic food, though – you’re going to have to end up paying more for it. I’m not a hippy, I’m an ex-season ticket holder from Newcastle – a proud Geordie who owns a business – who just happens to care about the environment.

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Becca Sayers, 41. Part-time music therapist, and mother of two, Cardiff

VICE: What made you stop flying? I suppose your sister, Anna, being the head of Flight Free UK had something to do with it?
Becca Sayers: Well, that doesn't necessarily guarantee it [laughs]. I've always tried to live the most environmental way I can – I cycle and get the train to work, I buy organic food, I don’t buy new clothes and I didn’t fly very much anyway. But I’ve become increasingly aware – not just about what my impact will be on the environment, but also how I’m going to teach my children, how I’m going to demonstrate what I think are good values.

Being a parent was a big part of it?
Yes. I thought long and hard about whether I would actually have children. I desperately wanted to have children, so we did, but I have been very mindful that I have to say what I think is right and I have to demonstrate that through the way I live, not just through what I say.

Do you feel like you’ve given anything up by giving up flying?
I wouldn't say I feel like anything’s been a sacrifice, honestly. I’m going to a conference in Belfast for work, which will take longer without flying, but it’s a change of a mindset rather than a sacrifice. And the last couple of family holidays we’ve done, we went to the Netherlands on train and ferry, and took our bikes. We also went to Germany on trains, and it was amazing. You see things, you can chat. If we'd flown I'd have been stressed about getting to the airport, I'd have been stressed about it being late and so on. Although I have to say, my husband did all the planning for these, so that helped.

Roughly how much do you earn? What tax bracket do you fall into?
Well I'm part-time, so probably the bottom. But as a family we’d fall into the middle tax bracket [up to £46,000].

Overall, do you think the decision will save you money or cost you money?
It's hard to say. I guess the only real thing I can look at is this conference in Belfast. I know that pretty much everyone else who's going will get on a plane and fly there. It certainly would be easier. Maybe it'll cost about the same, but it’s certainly going to take longer both to find a ticket and to get to Belfast. It’s definitely going to be more effort. But it’s more realistic – I think we all need to change our expectations on how far we get, and how fast we get there.

@tris_kennedy

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climate crisis