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Fri, 8 Apr 2022

Flights to nowhere

Image: Logan Weaver

A study of people who took scenic ‘flights to nowhere’ during the COVID epidemic has found there may still be a lack of awareness of how individual behaviours can contribute to climate change.

Dr Denis Tolkach is a Senior Lecturer in Tourism and Hospitality Management at James Cook University, who has been studying ethical issues in tourism.

He said with travel halting as a result of COVID-19, several airlines sought to offer ‘flights to nowhere’ – sightseeing flights that start and finish at the same airport without landing elsewhere - as a way to generate revenue and keep aircraft flight-ready.

“These flights quickly sold out, but have been heavily criticised for creating unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions. Our research explored the ethical decision-making process and the subsequent rationalisation of people who bought tickets on them,” said Dr Tolkach.

The researchers talked to people who had travelled on two scenic Fiji Airways flights out of Nadi over the Fiji islands in October 2020 and January 2021. Fiji, like many other island nations, is heavily impacted by climate change, but is also dependent on aviation and tourism.

“Our participants had recently flown on a flight to nowhere, so we could investigate the actual behaviours and attitudes attributed to a specific case, rather than asking about abstract intentions,” said Dr Tolkach.

The study’s participants didn’t consider the carbon emissions from these sightseeing flights, although they all expressed concerns about climate change.

Despite being unaware of an ethical dilemma before them, all participants justified their travel in line with their beliefs. Dr Tolkach said the most common justification passengers used was an ‘Appeal to Higher Loyalties’.

“This contends that it’s okay to unnecessarily contribute to carbon emissions because the flights are fulfilling a higher purpose. Several passengers commented that taking a flight to nowhere financially supports the airline or it was a special experience with loved ones for a special occasion,” said Dr Tolkach.

He said other neutralisation techniques passengers used were ‘Denial of Injury’ – that they were not making a major contribution to carbon emissions, and ‘Justification by Comparison’ – arguing the flights emit a lot less pollution and carbon than other industries, such as the manufacturing sector.

“The Appeal to Higher Loyalties highlights the overall challenge of changing individual behaviours to be more sustainable, as individuals prioritise immediate benefits for their inner social circle over the long-term benefits for society as a whole,” said Dr Tolkach.

“Given the disconnect most passengers had between taking a flight to nowhere and contributing to carbon emissions, policymakers and NGOs should focus on raising awareness regarding how specific actions of individuals contribute to climate change,” said Dr Tolkach.


Dr Denis Tolkach
E: denis.tolkach@jcu.edu.au