Greta Thunberg, who last flew in 2015, shot to international prominence, going from staging a lone protest at her school to addressing the United Nations in New York in the course of just 12 months. Credit: EurActiv.

The Swedish concept of flygskam or “flight shame” appears to be going global after a survey by Swiss bank UBS revealed that environmental concerns have led many people to change how they travel. However, will it have any effect on travelers in China or the rest of Asia?

Out of 6,000 people questioned in the UK, France, Germany and the US, a surprising 21% reported that they had cut their flying in 2018, with the figure among US travelers being 24%, and if that trend continued, expected growth in passenger numbers could end up being halved.

Aeroplane manufacturers Boeing and Airbus had projected that current annual growth rates of between 4 and 5% will continue at that level until 2035, which would mean passenger numbers doubling every 15 years.

Last month Airbus SE unveiled its Global Market Forecast 2019-2038 report, the strength of which was largely dependent upon significant anticipated growth in countries such as China and India.

But in the US and Europe, increased awareness of issues such as climate change, largely brought about by the efforts of campaigner Greta Thunberg, are leading to significant changes.

UBS said that as a result of this, flight numbers within the European Union were only likely to increase by 1.5% per annum, half the figure expected by Airbus, while in the US the figure would be 1.3%, rather than the anticipated 2.1%, which could have serious knock-on effects for aircraft manufacturers’ business.

Airbus, which controls around 57% of the global aviation manufacturing market, could see revenue reduced by around 2.8 billion euros (US$3.05 billion) per year, with the fall in demand for small aircraft seeing Boeing and Airbus cut their annual productivity by around 110 craft.

The flygskam movement was started in 2017 by musician Staffan Lindberg and a group of high-profile friends, including Thunberg’s mother, opera singer Malena Ernman, and soon had a major impact.

In summer 2018 there was a 3% fall in passenger numbers at Sweden’s 10 busiest airports, with a further 8% reduction between January and April this year, something the chief executive of SAS, one of Scandinavia’s biggest airlines, said he is “convinced” is down to flightshaming.

At the same time, the number of journeys in Sweden by rail, which has a much smaller environmental impact, rose by 5% last year and 8% in the first quarter of 2019, with sales of international rail tickets going up hugely.

While China does have a rapidly expanding and efficient rail system — something the US doesn’t have — few analysts see any major changes in Asia, the world’s fastest growing aviation market.

According to the Japan Times, aviation industry estimates suggest that global passenger numbers will double by 2037, led primarily by new middle-class consumers in China, India and Southeast Asia. Sometime in the next decade, China will surpass the US as the world’s biggest aviation market.

This growth has been driven partly by population size — China’s middle class alone includes at least 400 million members — and partly by strategy. Rather than waiting for these consumers to become rich enough to afford traditional airfares, Asian low-cost carriers sprung up to meet them where they were economically, the Japan Times reported.

In 2008, airlines in Southeast Asia flew 200 million seats. A decade later, they flew 530 million seats; during that time, low-cost carriers expanded their market share from 30% to nearly 50%. The region’s leading such airline, Malaysia-based AirAsia Group, uses the slogan “Now Everyone Can Fly!” It’s on track to become Southeast Asia’s largest carrier — period — in 2019.

Neither the airline industry, passengers — many of whom are flying for the first time — nor local governments have any intention of slowing this growth, despite all the efforts of the Swedish teen sensation.

Thunberg, who last flew in 2015, shot to international prominence, going from staging a lone protest at her school to addressing the United Nations in New York in the course of just 12 months.

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