The Big Bad Wolf

The Aviation industry takes a lot of hits in the media which translates into the general view of public opinion

The Aviation industry takes a lot of hits in the media which translates into the general view of public opinion

The defamatory name, the Big Bad Wolf, arrived in the world of climate change, but that picture is based on framing and not on facts. Unfortunately, this picture does seem to influence policymakers. So, let’s dismantle the framing, step by step. 

The effects of doing so may be limited, but it will hopefully lead to the return of justifiable pride in one of human society’s greatest achievements: the conquest of the air. To start with, let us list three things that are not up for discussion. Number one; climate change is real. Secondly, the contribution that aviation makes to climate effects is also real. Thirdly, by making an intercontinental flight one adds a considerable amount to his or her personal emissions footprint. 

Now, let us discuss a fourth point: tax exemptions on international transport are not a necessity. The exemption from taxes on international transport is a political choice. That choice was made in 1944 with the aim of promoting international contact. The hope was that this would reduce the risk of major armed conflicts. Of course, the choice made then does not have to be maintained forever, but the discussion about altering that choice should be about the choice. Therefore, do we still consider that the promotion of international contacts is sensible, or do we opt for limitations to our mobility? 

Of course, a careful consideration of the pros and cons should look at the consequences for the world as a whole. Unfortunately, when tax exemptions in aviation come up, rather than having the discussion about the pros and cons of mobility, the issue is often framed thus: aviation should be taxed because aviation is so bad. To begin with, that is wrong in a relative sense. 

Ships are the only real alternative for intercontinental transport, and they consume seven times more fuel than an aeroplane over the same distance per passenger. It does not work for continental transport either. The alternative here is high-speed train lines (e.g. the French TGV or the Anglo-French Eurostar) which use as much energy per passenger as an aeroplane. A Dutch journalist, Karel Knip, devoted two articles to this in the NRC newspaper in 2018, but after receiving many negative reactions, including hate mail, he decided not to discuss the topic anymore. In terms of climate change, high-speed train lines only outperform aeroplanes when using electricity generated by nuclear power stations, which is indeed the case with the TGV and the Eurostar. Even then, at least 10 million travelers each year must use a high-speed train route, otherwise the emissions resulting from the construction and maintenance of the extensive infrastructure, often with many tunnels and bridges, will throw a spanner in the climate change works and the aeroplane will still be the better solution. 

A high-speed train is better than the aeroplane in just a few situations and even then, the costs involved are extremely high for a very limited climate advantage. The latter is of course permitted because, that too, is a political choice. The framing used then switches to a different argument: in absolute terms, the contribution is so great that aviation really has to be tackled. Aviation is the big bad wolf. If you then investigate this, you will see that the contribution of aviation to global CO2 emissions is about 2%. Not zero, by any means, and certainly something that needs to be addressed. But even if it is brought back to zero, it has, by definition, little influence. It is therefore not very clever to place aviation on the scaffolds as climate change’s main culprit… at least, not if you really want to do something about the climate change problem. Yes, say the framers, it may only be 2% now, but aviation will grow so quickly that by 2050 perhaps a quarter of all CO2 emissions will come from aviation. 

We speak of course of predictions made before the Corona crisis. If you examine this, it turns out that the figure of 25% will only be the case when all other human emission sources have been reduced by at least two-thirds. And if that is the case, the climate change problem will have been solved. The final piece of framing that remains is that aviation must become more fuel efficient and that, just like with cars, you can enforce this by taxing fuel. To say this shows a great lack of knowledge of aviation. 

Aircraft have a maximum take-off mass that must be accurately observed. Even if the fuel were free, aviation would become increasingly more fuel efficient as lower fuel consumption means more space for passengers and cargo on board an aeroplane. This is exactly what has happened between 1960 and 2000; the fuel consumption per passenger of civil aeroplanes decreased from 8.5 litres per 100 km (Douglas DC-8) to 2.3 litres (Boeing 777). That is a decrease of more than 70%. Therein lays the problem. 

Unlike cars, there is little room for further improvement. Nevertheless, there is a potential solution. One could choose to limit mobility and thus make flying more expensive. However, one would also have to make the alternatives equally more expensive, otherwise the results will not be favorable as demand might move to other forms of transport that perform worse than aviation. So, the discussion must really be about whether or not to limit mobility, not about limiting aviation. 

But if you choose to set limits and make travel more expensive, governments must use the revenue from levies or taxes to make aviation climate neutral, because aviation does have a problem. The high-speed train can run on emission-free electricity from nuclear energy and can switch to electricity from alternative sources as soon as it becomes available in sufficient amounts. The aeroplane cannot do that. 

The path to climate neutral flying is through the development of SAF: Sustainable Aviation Fuel. This can be bio-kerosene, produced, for example, from algae so that it does not compete with food production. It could also be synthetic kerosene, something that could be made when there is excess production of electricity from solar or wind energy. Both SAFs are already technically possible but are still too expensive. The aviation sector was unable to invest in its further development, before and certainly cannot following the Corona crisis. If you really care about the future, you should choose to work on financing this development, and not on policymaking based on framing. In short: if you work in aviation, you have every reason to be immensely proud. If you are a policy maker, please make wise choices that are based on facts. 

NOTE: Aficionados of numbers and percentages can find background information, sources and detailed examples of the framing discussed here in the pdf “Aviation – Framing versus Facts

Benno Baksteen
The author Benno Baksteen, has forty years operational aviation experience and has spent his whole working life in what became known as a safety culture. He started his flight training in 1966 at the Government Flight Academy in Eelde and after his military service with the Royal Dutch Naval Air Force he joined KLM Royal Dutch Airlines in 1970 as First Officer on the DC-9. He got his first Captaincy in 1982 and in 2006 he retired as Captain on the Boeing 777 after being a B747 Captain from 1988 until 2003.


  1. Dear Capt Benno,
    Such a delight to read your piece above.

    I lead on behalf of SpiceJet an SAF project with WEF, and have set upon India an ambitious target of 100 million passengers to fly on SAF airplanes by 2030 in India domestically!

    We all need to disseminate, cascade, percolate, diffuse, call it whatever, this kind of factual info to all – activists, policy makers, aviators, public at large.

    all the best


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