What are the true costs of an unsustainable flight?

In the name of our Technology and Environment classes we had to think about an issue which troubles the environment and how we could solve or improve it. We are Jeffrey Medina and Mark Mocan and our goal is to find out how heavily airplanes pollute our environment. And how we could lessen it with a tax burden which increases the price of an airplane flight.

[Belgium’s partner team contribution “Sustainable flights“]

What we knew before our research

We think that since there is a great airplane traffic all over the world, every day, all year, that the emission of the airplanes is far bigger than in all other types of transportation. Mostly because of the big amount of kerosine they waste. On the other hand, there is also a big air pollution due to the cargo shipping, trucks, cars & motorbikes that are in use every day. But we still think that the airplane caused pollution outweighs the land and sea based transportation methods, because of the imports and exports that are being handled by planes.

How would fuel taxes change the price for a ticket?

The situation in brief

  • Air travel hurts the climate enormously. And yet the “air traffic” is greater than ever.
  • One reason are the airline tickets which are available for discount prices. This is made possible by special privileges that the aviation industry enjoys, such as massive tax benefits. In addition, many costs are carried by the general public and not by the polluter itself. That means, whilst the airlines make profit out of it, we as the public have to suffer from it.
At Zurich Airport, photo made by Ms Medina

Looking at the CO2 emissions, there is, apart from cargo shipping, hardly a bigger polluter than the aviation sector. The impact on the ecological footprint is enormous as this example shows:

An eco-conscious vegetarian who cycles only produces 3.3 tons of CO2 a year. With just a short and long haul flight, his footprint immediately increases to 8 tons.

What would the true cost of a ticket look like? “Kassensturz” has counted on experts from ETH Zurich.

Fliegen zum Spottpreis: Bei dieser Politik zahlt das Klima drauf (srf.ch)

Our questions to a Swiss politician regarding the fuel taxes

Wenn eine höhere Steuerbelastung auf Kerosin vorgesehen wäre, um wie viel würden Sie diese erhöhen? (If there would be intended to give a higher tax burden on kerosene, how high would you set it on?)

Hängt vom Parlament ab. Kann so nicht gesagt werden. (Depends on the parliament. Can’t be said exactly.)

Würden Sie Kurzflüge – da diese die Umwelt mehr belasten – mit einer höheren (Umwelt-) Steuer belasten oder allgemein alle Flüge gleich belasten? (Would you give short distance flights – since they strain the environment more – a higher tax burden than long distance flights or treat them as the same?)

Kurzflüge sind nicht insgesamt schlechter, nur pro km. Pro Flug sind Langstreckenflüge für das Klima eine viel stärkere Belastung. (Short distance flights aren’t worse in general, just per km. Per Flight the long distance flights are far more worse for the environment)

Wie stehen Sie zu den Ergebnissen der letzten Wahlen, bei der es um die Benzinsteuer ging? (What’s your opinion on the results of the last elections, which were about the fuel taxes?)

Meinen sie die Abstimmung zur Energiestrategie? Habe ich unterstützt. (Do you mean the vote about the energy strategy? I supported it.)

Warum denken Sie, ist sie in Bezug auf die Kerosinsteuer gescheitert? (Why do you think that it failed regarding the kerosene taxes?)

Es fehlten nur ca. 3 Stimmen. Insgesamt lässt sich eine Mehrheit im Nationalrat zu stark von der Erdöl- und Fluglobby beeinflussen. (There were only 3 votes missing for it to be accepted. All in all, the majority in the parliament is influenced too heavily by the Petrol- and Aviationlobby)

Interview by email with Bastien Girod, Nationalrat since 03.12.2007 – Grüne Partei (Member of the National Council of The Green Party, Switzerland)

Our survey about the flight behaviour of Swiss people

Number of participants: 35 (made with the survey tool “Findmind”)


Conclusion: Most people (81%) seem to know how much flying damages our environment. Nearly 50% would not fly anymore in case of rapidly increasing prices. The effect of higher prices would have a positive impact on the flight behaviour and consequently on our environment.

Cost calcualtions

Together with “Kassensturz” an expert from the ETH Zurich calculated how much a flight really should cost. For the environmental economist Renate Schubert the flight costs blank out a lot of costs. [1]

For example

Short distance flight [1]
If we’d burden more taxes on kerosene and the flight prices the total prices would be a lot higher than they are now.

Another example makes clear that also long distance flights are too cheap. That shows the following calculation of a flight from Zurich to New York:

long flight costs
Long distance flight [1]


After the inclusion of the different taxes and charges the results show a price that should be at least twice as high as it is now.

By Jeffrey Medina and Mark Mocan

[Belgium’s partner team contribution “Sustainable flights“]


[1] Fliegen zum Spottpreis: Bei dieser Politik zahlt das Klima drauf (srf.ch)
[2] Photos by Ms Medina
[3] What are the true costs of flying? (ethz.ch)
[4] Schweizer Exporte schaden dem Klima (saldo.ch)

On-topic posts on dontwastemy.energy
Aviation, emissions and new technologies
Have a pleasant flight with where2where

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5 thoughts on “What are the true costs of an unsustainable flight?

  1. Dear Jeff and Mark,
    You have made good researches about the topic, sustainable flights. Me as an Airline employee can clearly confirm that you explained in an understandable way how Airlines calculate their ticket price. Your Survey is interesting, in my Point of view it would be juicy to also see how much the People fly g during one year. The interview is good and it points out the politicians opinion about aviation taxes. I think an interview from a person with another opinion would also illustrate the other side. The question for the interview were very proper to your topic.

    Summarised you made a really good work, I would prefer to read a bit more about your conclusion and more about your flight behaviour.

    Best regards,

  2. Interesting read. It’s especially intriguing just how much of a difference it would make if ticket prices were doubled.

  3. The price of a flight ticket twice as high and to you survey, about 44% of the people will choose another way of transportation… what a benefit for climate. Perhaps you can send a link to your investigation to the Swiss Minister of Environment.

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