After France Bans Short Domestic Flights, It’s Business as Usual

When the French government officially enacted a ban on short domestic flights this week, it hailed the move as proof that France was at the forefront of ambitious climate change policies. But critics say it’s a lot of ado about nothing.

“We are the first to do it,” President Emmanuel Macron wrote in a celebratory message. On twitterwhich also included an image reading “Promise kept” stamped in green ink.

At first glance, the promise seems to have been fulfilled: any flight between two cities that can be replaced by a train journey of less than 2.5 hours is prohibited. In a country smaller than Texas and with an extensive high-speed rail network, that would seem to rule out a lot of domestic flights.

But appearances can be deceiving.

He decree The formalization of the ban, which was published on Tuesday, is riddled with exceptions.

It applies only to cities connected by a direct train service that operates “several times a day” and allows travelers to spend a minimum of eight hours at their destination.

It does not apply to connecting flights and makes an exception for Paris Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport, one of the busiest passenger hubs in Europe, so air routes between Charles de Gaulle and other French cities will be maintained .

Finally, since a significant amount of the country’s high-speed train traffic passes through Paris, only a limited number of cities outside the capital have direct train service between each other that would comply with the decree’s rules.

When all is said and done, only three routes are cut: those that go between the Paris-Orly airport and the cities of Nantes, Bordeaux and Lyon.

The exceptions are meant to ensure that train service between two cities is robust enough before flights between those same destinations are banned. But for critics, the confusing jumble of conditions has rendered the measure largely pointless.

“All that fuss, so not so much,” said Geneviève Laferrère, who handles transportation issues for France Nature Environnementa federation of environmental advocacy groups.

Laferrère acknowledged that the ban could have an “educational” impact, further encouraging travelers to seek alternatives to flying. But he said the government had missed an opportunity to act more forcefully, adding: “There are so many limitations that the effectiveness is gone.”

The ban on short domestic flights was part of a far-reaching law to tackle climate change that was passed in 2021 with the aim of reducing France’s greenhouse gas emissions. Mr Macron’s government recently unveiled an accelerated roadmap reduce them by 50 percent by 2030, compared to 1990 levels.

The government insists that the ban is an important step in that direction.

“This is an essential step and a strong symbol in our policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Clément Beaune, France’s transport minister, said of the flight ban in a statement. statement on Tuesday that he announced the move as a “world first.”

Although the ban was only enacted this week, airlines had already been following it for several years. In 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the government forced Air France to cut some routes in exchange for a financial aid package worth billions of euros; then he prohibited competitors from rushing to fill the void.

But the official implementation of the ban was delayed after the airline industry filed complaints with the European Commission. that gave the green light to the law in December. The ban will apply for at least three years, after which the French authorities will analyze its impact before taking further steps.

Nicolas Paulissen, chief executive of the French Airports Union, said the air transport industry was pleased with the limited impact of the ban but worried it could set a precedent for tougher measures.

“Addressing domestic flights does not solve the problem of CO2 emissions from air transport,” added Paulissen.

In 2019, domestic flights accounted for just 4 percent of CO2 emissions from the French transport industry, according to official statistics.

And according to a analysis from Le Monde civil aviation data, the three routes to be eliminated account for only about 5,000 flights per year, less than 3 percent of the total number of annual domestic flights in France. The French authorities have admitted that cutting those three routes reduced emissions by only about 55,000 tons of CO2 per year.

Laurent Donceel, acting managing director of Airlines For Europe, an industry lobby group for Europe’s largest low-cost and flagship airlines, said on Wednesday that countries should focus on “tangible” targets, such as jet fuel. sustainable and electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft. . He noted that airlines have committed to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“Rather than looking for token bans, governments should strive to promote these real and meaningful solutions,” Donceel said in a statement.

But Ms Laferrère, from France Nature Environnement, said the government also needed to make rail transport more attractive by helping the national railway company reduce ticket prices and investing more in rail infrastructure.

Furthermore, he said, if the short-haul ban only encourages French airports to reallocate more take-off slots to long-haul ones, “we’re not going to save much CO2.”