The French Government has banned short-haul internal flights when rail alternatives could cover the journey in 2h30 or less.

The bill, which was voted in the French Parliament on 10 April, will only apply to a handful of routes, such as those between Paris and Nantes, and Lyon and Bordeaux. Connecting flights are excluded.

Aiming to cut down France’s CO2 emission levels of 1990 by 40%, the measure – which needs to be approved at the Senate level – was applauded by President Macron’s party LaREM.

“We are engaging in a profound transformation of the aviation sector,” read a tweet from LaREM MPs. “Favouring the train or other means of public transport for short distances is common sense and a key gesture for the climate.”

Political reactions to the bill

Not everyone in the political arena agrees with the bill. As reported by Huffington Post France, socialist MPs Joël Aviragnet and David Habib condemned the measure as “a measure of degrowth and unemployment”, whilst republican MPs denounced the move when the industry is already on its knees because of Covid-19.

Industry Minister Agnes Pannerier-Runacher responded to comments during an interview with European radio Europe 1. “We know that aviation is a contributor of carbon dioxide and that because of climate change we must reduce emissions,” Reuters reported that she said. “Equally, we must support our companies and not let them fall by the wayside.”

To help support the industry, France recently granted €4bn for the recapitalisation of Air France, after previously allocating €7bn to the carrier to help weather the Covid-19 pandemic.

Politicians were not the only ones unhappy about the result. According to the BBC, France’s Citizen’s on Climate had initially lobbied to remove planes where train journeys under four hours could be taken instead.

French consumer group UFC-Que Choisir produced an analysis of the benefits of trains compared to planes. “On average, the plane emits 77 times more CO2 per passenger than the train on these lines, even though the train is cheaper (- € 4) and the loss of time is limited to 40 minutes,” read the paper.


Industry reactions to the bill

The bill also received mixed reviews at the industry level. The airline pilot union SNPL said it was “quite disappointed by the government’s decision to ban domestic flights,” a spokesperson for the union told Airport Technology. “There needs to be regulation on an international or at least European level because if we act only at a national level, [we’ll] only reduce capacity of national carriers, without an effect on the environment.”

Other transport organisation warmed up to the news, highlighting what still needs to be done.

“Shifting short-haul flights to rail is a no-brainer but this is only a small part of aviation’s pollution. On average more than two-thirds of airline emissions are on long haul flights, which can only be decarbonised with cleaner fuels like synthetic kerosene,” said Transport & Environment aviation manager Jo Dardenne.

“The French Government should also be mandating the use of greener jet fuel and charging an effective carbon price that forces airlines to fly cleaner.”

“Legislation such as this and utilising the National Resiliency and Recovery Plans to advance ERTMS deployment and fleet renewal for the advancement of low and zero-emission technology options are tangible steps towards that green future which we can take today,” added a spokesperson for the European Rail Supply Industry Association.


Could other countries join the ban?

According to Greenpeace EU spokesperson John Hyland, what France is considering doing should become the norm all around the Union.

“Short-haul flights are extremely polluting and should be banned where an alternative connection exists, but the proposed French travel time limit of 2.5 hours leaves a huge number of short flights still in operation, including Paris-Marseille – one of the top three domestic flights in terms of greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

“The EU and European governments, France included, should ban all domestic and cross-border short flights when passengers can use less polluting transport like rail or bus.”

France is not the first country to ban short-haul flights. In November 2020, Austrian carrier Austrian Airlines substituted its short flights between Vienna and the city of Graz with three-hour train journeys instead.

The move – a partnership between the carrier and the Austrian Federal Railways – has already two other routes working as part of the AIRail project.

“After Linz and Salzburg, we are now providing another region, namely Graz, with the attractive AIRail offer that guarantees a safe and environmentally friendly journey to the airport including an assured connecting service”, says CEO of the Austrian Federal Railways Andreas Matthä.

As the transition from plane to train is now being discussed all over Europe will it be a compelling case for the UK?

According to a Twitter poll by British journalist Martin Lewis, a great majority of people would support a ban on all UK domestic flights if trips can be done by train in under 2.5 hours. Out of almost 75,000 votes, 45.4% of people over 40 supported the decision, whilst only 10.8% were against it. Looking at people under 40, 33.7% were in favour with only 10.1% against.