What is ‘normal’? Air travel habits of Norwegians and Europeans

I have flown a lot. That’s the main cause of my personal carbon footprint being so high. I have made quite a number of little changes to my lifestyle to try and reduce this, but it remains a dominant part of the footprint for many Norwegians and Europeans (probably most developed countries in general).

But the question I have had for a long time is: am I representative? Do I fly more than everyone else? How many others are there like me? So this blog post has been a number search through mostly Norwegian sources to try and find out how much the average Norwegian flies. And how much this contributes to the nation’s GHG footprint.

Only 18% haven’t flown in the past year

82% of Norwegians have been on at least one private (non-business related) flight in the past 12 months. Meanwhile 29% have been on five or more private flights, considerably more than Spain at 8% which was second in the group of 11 developed countries in a survey performed by Momondo in 2014.

On average, Norwegians have taken 2.9 flights domestically in Norway in 2015. The Swedish, with their similar geography come in second place amongst all European countries, but at only 0.8 domestic flights per person per year. Shockingly, this means that Norway, with its 5 million inhabitants, produces the domestic air travel emissions of 50 million EU citizens (10 times more domestic travel). 

OSL Oslo Lufthavn planespotting - frame grab. Foto: Eirik Helland Urke
This 360 degree gigapixel picture consists of all the aircraft arriving at and departing from Oslo airport in the morning of August 12th 2015 between 7:53am and 9:04am.

Norway maintains also a leading position amongst European states for international air travel. In the 10 years since 2005, the level of international flights taken by Norwegians (to and from Norway) increased by over 80%. In 2015 the average Norwegian flew 7.3 times (individual flights – not return trips). Only 3 island states: Iceland (14.7), Malta (10.8) and Cyprus (9.0) were ahead of Norway in terms of average international flights in 2015.

There are however large geographical differences in the amount of domestic travel in Norway. Oslo is the hub airport for both SAS and Norwegian, the two dominant carriers in the region. Over 2/3 of all domestic flights in Norway start or end in Oslo. The importance of the Oslo hub in Norway has increased from just under 60% of all domestic flights in the 1980s to 73% in 2015. This is presumably connected to a business model that places emphasis on hubs like Oslo.

Sør-Trøndelag, where I live, has experienced a slight decrease in domestic travel frequency from 4.5 flights per person per year in 2013 to 4.2 in 2015.  For the greater Oslo region however the figure was a steady 1.8 during both survey years. Troms county in northern Norway is the highest in Norway with 6.6 trips per year in 2015.

Where the data gets shaky is for international flights taken by Norwegians that do not start or end in Norway. There is good reason to believe that Norway would rank highly if such data was readily available.

Environmental impacts

The Institute for Transport Economics in Oslo calculated the greenhouse gas emissions from the flying behaviour of Norwegians in 2007, where 3.4 million tonnes CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalents) were produced (2.57 of which was traced back to international flights). 1.44 million tonnes of CO2e was related to flights outside of Europe. However these figures are no longer up to date in 2017, so it could be expected that the GHG emissions are today much higher thanks to rapidly increasing demand – whilst technological changes in fuel efficiency of planes has been relatively minor in comparison.

The environmental organisation Future in Our Hands (Framtiden i våre hender) has taken into account additional climate impact concerning carbon emissions released at altitude (often called contrails) and has calculated that Norwegians’ total air travel GHG impact is equivalent to 7.05 million tonnes of CO2. This is equivalent to 12.5% of Norway’s combined GHG emissions.

clouds___n_contrails_2__by_the_wrinklyninja-d5e4vgh
Plane contrails over Reading, UK in 2012. Photo: the-wrinklyninja.deviantart.com

In the business sector, there are still very high levels of flying (in my own experience of university employees at least). Often without particularly good reasons too. Working group meetings (usually only a few hours long) are often held in Oslo or other large cities that require people from across Norway to fly there. The oil and gas industry accounts for 10 % of all plane traffic in Norway, but this is at least a physical work that could not be replaced by a video conference meeting.

But the trend for business travel is beginning to change. The percentage of domestic flights that are attributable to leisure and other private travel has increased from 34% in 1982 to 52% in 2015. Thus business flights are no longer the dominant cause for domestic flights. Internationally the trend is even more pronounced, with an even higher market share of leisure trips outside of Norway.

Reasons are likely connected to ticket price and a relatively strong Norwegian economy. But also the fact that nearly everyone has access to a travel agent in their pocket today with applications and websites that make traveling easier than ever. Ticket prices have remained stable between 2003 and 2015, but taking into account inflation, the average ticket price has reduced by 21% in this 12 year period.

What about me?

I haven’t left Norway since my last trip to Australia in April last year. And my last flight was in May. I don’t have plans to travel by plane before June either, which means that I will be in the 18% of Norwegian residents who haven’t flown in 12 months (if the survey is asked in May 2017…).

Of course Australia is a very long distance away too, so even if this is my only flight and I do this once every 18 months (which is roughly my frequency for going home) then this is enough to put me well above average. But I am quite happy about managing to significantly reduce my flying within Norway. I do however really want to visit some more of Europe at some point or another, but I’ll try and save up some holidays such that I don’t do it in 5 weekend trips but rather one longer holiday. My general philosophy is to not fly short haul flights where possible, and thankfully continental Europe has excellent ground transport options with especially high speed and overnight trains, so this should be easy to keep to.

 

 

 

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