Don’t come fly with me

Helen Coffey is a curiosity and a paradox. A full-time travel journalist since 2013, she is currently travel editor of the British digital newspaper the Independent, which in 2021 had a monthly reach of just under 20 million. The Independent‘s longstanding policy is to prefer holiday options that are modestly priced, but distance is less of an issue: as well as destinations in the United Kingdom, Coffey’s team cover places as close as Brussels or Barcelona, ​​and as far-flung as Barbados or Brisbane. For her readers – particularly those who don’t live within easy reach of a Eurostar terminal or ferry port – the obvious way to reach these overseas hotspots is by plane. In many cases, flying is to all intents and purposes the only way.

For most international travel, flying is a way of life. Charged with the enviable responsibility of testing out trips, they hop on and off planes as lightly as others hop on and off buses or bikes. But Coffey is different: she is a flight-free convert. She is not the only high-profile travel journalist to take a break from flying, but she is one of the few to bare her soul (and risk accusations of hypocrisy) by making her flight-free pledge public. What drove Coffey to re-evaluate her four-flights-a-month habit (a mixture of work and fun) was, as you might expect, her growing understanding of aviation’s negative impact on the environment. She reached a tipping point in the spring of 2019: as she puts it, “the UK’s Extinction Rebellion protests were pretty in full swing, David Attenborough had … much admitted the world was on fire and our actions were murdering all the lovely animals, and Greta Thunberg had become an established household name”. Against this backdrop, a new catchword jolted her awake: flygskam, a Swedish neologism that, she carefully points out, is widely misunderstood. “It was never about shaming other people, or castigating them, or looking down on them. It was only ever about looking at yourself; It was only ever about changing your own habits.”

Coffey’s introspection peaked during an hour-long phone conversation with Anna Hughes, the founder of Flight Free UK, a movement that encourages people to pledge to give up flying for at least a year. The encounter left her “reeling” from what felt “akin to a religious conversion”. Though troubled by aviation’s net emissions, Coffey is far too about travel to give it up passionately, admitting that she has a “tendency to fall head over heels for every new place”, “floored by a rush of chemicals more often associated with teenage crushes”. The immediate answer, she decided, was to seek out more sustainable modes of transport, even if these required a great deal more time, tenacity, money or all three.

In this carefully researched and argued book, we follow Coffey as she analyzes the travel industry’s flaws and searches for solutions. The arena of responsible travel and ethical tourism is constantly evolving, as new community-led initiatives, government policies and technological advances emerge, so the cases she mentions and the conclusions she draws may quickly date; for now, however, her arguments are compelling. She points out, for example, that according to a report by the Guardian“taking one long-haul return flight produces more carbon emissions than the average citizen in more than fifty countries will account for in a year.”

Coffey gathers evidence and expert opinions on the possible consequences of profit-driven growth in flight schedules and infrastructure, noting that the total aviation number of passenger kilometers flown in 2019 was more than 300 per cent higher than in 1990, and that aviation industry emissions “ look set to double by 2050″. She also asks why, in an era of hard-won climate-change targets, such growth is not more widely challenged.

Investigating the viability of technological fixes, Coffey examines whether new ways of powering planes could give us a free pass to fly as much as we like, quoting an industry insider who believes that “the 2020s will be the Decade of Hydrogen”. Promising as hydrogen-powered flight may seem, there’s a caveat: it will be expensive, with “significant built-in with limitations with regards to capacity and distance.”

Concluding that known technology may not deliver the clean, green long-haul flights that responsible for travellers crave, Coffey weighs up what we as a society might lose or gain if, collectively, we simply defy the predictions of tourism pundits and fly less. She considers, for example, the potential impact on remote, tourism-dependent tourism. “If we all stopped flying, some of the poorest communities in the world would undoubtedly become poorer”, she writes. “People and planet are both equally important when we talk about sustainability.” It’s a quandary she can’t resolve. As long tourism as businesses and tourists act responsibly, long-haul tourism can, on balance, be a force for good, driving conservation and cultural exchange, for example. The answer, she feels, is to ensure that if you have to get on a plane, you “make it count”.

Coffey’s survey doesn’t stint on detail. She regularly breaks out of newshound mode, however, to find her voice as a diarist, chronicling with relish the flight-free trips she has completed. We join her as she voyages across the Mediterranean to Morocco, discovers the appeal of night trains and picks up hitchhiking tips from the Independent‘s veteran travel guru, Simon Calder. (“The only thing you have to offer is your dazzling wit and sparkling conversation”, he says. “Don’t let them down.”) Far from appearing didactic or smug – the curse of the ardent ethical traveller – Coffey seems to approach every new journey with wide-eyed joy.

With characteristic modesty, she omits to mention one of her most commendable achievements as a sustainable travel activist. Under her travel editorship, the Independent No longer takes it for granted that readers want to fly. It still covers distant destinations, but when suggesting how to get there, it offers flight-free options, however outlandish they may sound. A recent article on Bangkok, for example, recommends taking the train to Le Havre, booking a passenger berth on a cargo ship to Singapore, then continuing by train via Kuala Lumpur and Penang. In doing so it presents flight-free travel not as an inconvenience, but an opportunity for nostalgia, exploration or unbridled adventure.

So, while the conclusion of Helen Coffey’s book is that, eighteen months into her flight-free pledge, her journey is just beginning, the reality could well be more profound. There’s every chance that her editorial stance as a journalist has already inspired tourists and travelers to reflect on their choices and consider slower, greener ways to get from A to B. There’s every chance, too, that Zero Altitude will influence a great many more to do the same, discovering for themselves the serendipitous thrill of traveling without flying.

Emma Gregg is a travel journalist, editor, author and photographer who specializes in ethical tourism

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