France’s short-haul flight ban one year on: Has it encouraged more people to take the train?

France’s short-haul flight ban one year on: Has it encouraged more people to take the train?

Last June, France formally introduced a ban on domestic short-haul flights in an effort to bring down carbon emissions.

In theory, the regulation prohibits flights where a rail alternative under 2.5 hours exists. Critics at the time said it didn’t go quite far enough, targeting very few routes and not including connecting flights. The aviation industry has fought back claiming the regulation is unfair.

So, just over a year after it was introduced, what impact has France’s short-haul domestic flight ban had so far?

Has France’s domestic flight ban cut emissions?

Before the ban’s introduction, the French Directorate General for Civil Aviation (DGAC) estimated that the new regulation could cut up to 55,000 tonnes of emissions - just 2.6 per cent of total emissions from domestic flights in France per year.

The measure’s apparently minimal impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions was the basis of an appeal against the law by the Union of French Airports earlier this year which argued that it was an “abuse of power”.

They lost this appeal with the Council of State ruling that the ban “is likely to contribute in the short term to the reduction of these emissions in the field of air transport”.

Over a year since its introduction, no official figures yet exist for any emissions reductions achieved directly through the ban, however.

The one scrap of information we do have, according to French aviation manager for non-profit Transport & Environment Jérôme du Boucher, is overall emissions from domestic flights last year.

They decreased by 3.4 per cent in 2023 compared to in 2022 whereas, on an international level, these emissions increased.

Passengers wait to check in in a terminal of Charles de Gaulle airport.
Passengers wait to check in in a terminal of Charles de Gaulle airport. - AP Photo/ Thomas Padilla

“So that’s really an illustration that in general, domestic flights in France have decreased and the short-haul flight ban contributes to that,” he explains. “In what proportion? Hard to say.”

“What we can say in a more qualitative way is that at the same time in 2023, the national rail company SNCF has recovered its level of business activity.”

If we put that in parallel with domestic flights, he says, the rate of travel and business activity has not returned to pre-COVID levels.

“And so it seems that a shift has been made, in a more general way than only on those specific flights [covered by the ban].”

The ban will apply for at least three years, after which the French government will look at its impact before taking any new steps.

More than just emissions figures

The legacy of the ban may not just be about whether the regulation itself is effective at cutting emissions from domestic flights, however.

“It seems to be little in terms of CO2 emission but it's good as a political measure, as a piece of legislation,” de Bouchard says.

The law was much debated in France and actually implementing it, in whatever form it takes, is a signal to people. He believes that makes them consider what the French would call ‘sobriété’ or moderation - is it really worth it to take these flights for business or leisure?

“It has a real effect on how people behave and consider this means of transportation.”

A recent DGAC national air passenger survey asked people what they would do if their journey was not possible by plane. For domestic flights, 41 per cent said they would have used a different mode of transport.

Not just that, de Bouchard adds, but it opens doors and the possibility of more regulation. Spain, for example, is planning to introduce a similar ban on short-haul flights where there are rail alternatives under 2.5 hours.

As one country commits to regulation like this and it is approved by the European Commission, it becomes easier for other EU countries to consider doing it too.