Could a frequent flyer tax happen? What a UK proposal could mean for avid travelers
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.
Climate change is a problem the entire world is struggling to address. Now there are growing calls in the U.K. to implement a “frequent flyer tax” on the people who spend the most time on airplanes.
Activist groups such as Greenpeace are throwing their support behind a proposed levy on air passengers because they say in countries with high levels of airplane emissions, it’s a small portion of the population — elite travelers — that does the most damage.
Sign up to receive the daily TPG newsletter for more travel news!
A new report from the climate campaign organization Possible, the group that called for the tax, says 15% of the U.K. population takes a whopping 70% of the flights to and from the U.K. Those numbers skew even higher in other countries.
In the U.S., 12% of people account for two-thirds of air travel. In France, 2% of the population take 50% of flights. And in India, nearly half of all flights are taken by just 1% of households.
Because frequent flyers typically earn higher incomes, the numbers suggest the wealthiest people are causing the most damage to the world’s climate via air travel. While there are no countries with specific taxes on frequent flyers, climate change is a problem that is becoming harder to ignore. With many experts expecting air travel to begin its slow rebound by the end of 2021 after the pandemic crippled the aviation industry, activists are urging government leaders to take action now. What does that mean for avid flyers?
The Frequent Flyer Levy, as it is called, would be a progressive tax that increases as a person takes more trips or travels longer distances by air. It’s designed so as not to penalize families that take the one annual holiday. Given the huge disparity in air travel in the U.K. where 85% of residents fly no more than two flights annually, those targeted by the tax would be business travelers and avid aviation fans.
Which brings us to an especially controversial aspect of the proposal in England: The call to end airline loyalty programs.
“Taxing frequent flyers is a good idea — but we also have to do something about air miles, which reward frequent fliers for flying more frequently,” John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace, told the BBC. “This is obscene during a climate crisis — and it should be stopped.”
The odds of airlines ending their frequent flyer programs are slim to none, especially with business travel not expected to rebound fully for several years as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The programs are incredibly valuable to the industry, and not just in terms of customer retention. They are basically essential assets, and it was especially true in 2020.
As revenues plummeted due to the coronavirus, the top three U.S. carriers — Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and American Airlines — used their frequent flyer programs to borrow $25 billion to navigate the financial difficulties.
A big reason those rewards programs are such vital assets to airlines is that they’re mostly immune to slumps in travel, as members earn points in the air and on the ground. The airlines then sell those points to partner businesses, such as cobranded credit card issuers. The business model works because the revenue earned from selling points to credit card companies and other partners is greater than the cost of flight redemptions and upgrades.
A government official quoted in the same BBC story did not comment specifically on calls to end loyalty programs. However, he did point out that frequent flyers already pay more under the Air Passenger Duty system, which levies charges based on the distance of a flight and what cabin the traveler is in, meaning international travelers already pay more.
A tax on frequent flyers is a long way from becoming a reality. Privacy concerns and practical implementation are just two complications that would have to be resolved. Airlines have argued in the past that a more effective way to reduce emissions is through the creation of more efficient airplanes and cleaner fuel.
The industry will no doubt fight any plans for a levy. And, of course, travelers who live for the thrill of hopping on a plane to visit a new destination will likely want their say.
Featured photo by guvendemir/Getty Images.
Welcome to The Points Guy!
Earn 90,000 bonus miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new card in the first three months of card membership. Offer ends 11/10/2021.
With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.
- Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 Bonus Miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer expires 11/10/2021.
- Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
- Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
- Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery and at U.S. supermarkets.
- Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
- Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. *Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $75 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
- Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
- Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®.
- Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
- No Foreign Transaction Fees.
- $250 Annual Fee.
- Terms Apply.
- See Rates & Fees