The airline fat tax is gaining traction, but it’s the polluters who must pay

The weight debate is deflecting attention and scapegoating passengers – industry must take responsibility

Should heavier passengers pay more to fly? The question isn’t new. Several airlines already charge plus-sized customers requiring more than one seat. And while Air New Zealand’s recent (optional) pre-departure weigh-ins raised eyebrows, its rationale centered on balance and fuel efficiency.

But debate around what Ryanair once dubbed a “fat tax” is gaining traction. For many airlines, it is simple maths. Lost seats plus extra fuel (to lift more weight) equals lower revenue. They will do all they can to tip the scales in their favour – shedding the pounds to save their profits. Just look at the luggage allowance. Not surprisingly, plus-sized penalties have drawn a backlash.

People come in different shapes and sizes. It is wrong for airlines to discriminate – full stop.

Except there’s another argument.

More weight means more fuel – and more emissions. As we get heavier, someone recently asked me, is that sustainable? Or should we charge plus-sized passengers per kg in body weight. It is a compelling idea. The polluter pays. But who exactly is that here: individual or industry?

Of course aviation wants us to focus on personal, rather than industry, accountability. It’s a distraction tactic.

And they are getting creative. Japan Airlines has begun offering a clothing hire service to passengers, as well as the choice to opt out of in-flight meals – both aimed at reducing waste, and weight-related emissions. Both are positive ideas – and a masterclass in scapegoating: small, richly PR-able and feel-good personal actions that deflect from real corporate change. Much like the idea of voluntary carbon offsets.

After all, there is much to suggest the whole concept of a “personal carbon budget” was coined by the fossil fuel industry itself. What a clever way to shift the burden of accountability.

And we play their game, wagging our fingers at NGOs flying to climate summits, or friends who choose plane over train to save money.

Personal responsibility does matter. But it would be dangerously naïve to think our voluntary actions alone can solve the climate crisis.

The UK’s Climate Change Committee (CCC) says aviation has no credible path to net zero. Let’s scrutinise that, and the fact the Government is failing to use its available tools – fairer taxes and tighter regulation – to curb demand and industry impacts, fund decarbonisation or invest in greener alternatives.

The CCC has made clear that the UK cannot afford to expand its airports, but warns that the Government is failing to address this. When we fill our cars with fuel, we pay tax. That’s fair: the polluter pays. Yet when airlines fill their planes with fuel, they’re exempt. It’s a breathtaking and shameful tax break.

Of course we can each do our bit to tackle climate change. Flying less is one of those things. But let’s be honest, it’s not enough. Not without system change.

Rent your holiday garb from Japan Airlines by all means. But don’t let them off the hook. The polluters must pay.

Justin Francis is the chief executive of Responsible Travel @justinmfrancis

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