Covid-19 has been tough on our National Carrier, Air New Zealand, shaving hundreds of millions off the bottom line and turning it into a primarily domestic airline.

The hit was brutal. Earlier this year, Air NZ reported that international flights dropped from over 30,000 in 2019 to under 10,000 in 2020. Despite a strong domestic recovery, passenger numbers decreased from 17.6 million in 2019 to 8.4 million in 2020. 

Declining international passenger numbers proved challenging to our domestic tourism industry generally, which had experienced a decade and more of unprecedented growth. The losses were balanced by relief for those regions which have experienced unsustainable demands on infrastructure and the natural environment. 

The future of air travel generally is vexing from an environmental perspective, as described in considerable detail by Paul Callister and Wallace Rae (BayBuzz, February 2020). Contributing “to 4.9% of human-caused climate change,” Callister and Rae call air transport “New Zealand’s emission elephant in the room.” 

Our nation’s disproportionate dependence on international transport means added responsibility for its adverse impacts, yet the 2021 Draft Advice for Consultation of the Climate Change Commission (CCC) simply defers consideration of this topic until at least 2024.

So, I am pleased that the report on sustainable tourism by Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton proposes a distance-based passenger tax on air fares. Increased air fares could raise as much as $400 million annually, while reducing visitor numbers.

Sir Jonathon Porritt, a British environmentalist and Air New Zealand’s chief environmental adviser, supports higher airfares, telling Newsroom that reducing “thoughtless, heedless tourism” would be a positive step.

Porritt proposes that funds raised by the price hike be used to purchase offsets for greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to environmental initiatives in New Zealand and the Pacific region.

‘Normal’ … a good thing?

This discussion is occurring as public media are full of stories about people and businesses desperate to return to normal.

I propose we banish the phrase ‘back to normal’, especially with respect to air travel. What was normal anyway? Was it a good thing?

Pumping enormous and growing fossil carbon emissions into the atmosphere was never normal, and it wasn’t a good thing. Instead of working to climb out of the disastrous hole of climate change, we were simply digging in faster.

As one of five million shareholders of Air New Zealand, I’m concerned about the revenue reduction of almost $5 billion in 2020. As a New Zealander, I’m deeply concerned about the wellbeing of the 4,000 staff who lost their jobs. However, as one of almost eight billion citizens of the world, I’m even more deeply worried about the disasters that climate change will impose upon the future and our descendants.

The world changed in 2020, as it always does, and the world of 2019 won’t return. I’m pleased, because the pandemic offers an opportunity to create a new, better, changed world, and a better national airline. Let’s not waste this extraordinary opportunity by failing to listen to the voices and wisdom of people such as Upton and Porritt. 

But we must go beyond their recommendations. Post-2020, in a world of climate emergencies, growing Air New Zealand’s business in its traditional form means growing carbon emissions. That’s no longer acceptable. 

Both the CCC report and the sustainable tourism report make clear that planting more forests is not sufficient to replace fossil carbon emissions. Our national responsibility is to stop injecting fossil carbon into the atmosphere. 

Carbon-free flight is a dream now, but the only acceptable pathway for growing air passenger numbers to pre-2020 levels requires major emission reductions. Air New Zealand needs to recognise that planting trees no longer meets their environmental obligations. Then, they need to commit to joining international collaborations to achieve carbon-free flight by 2050, while reducing emissions dramatically between now and then. 

Carbon-free flight is not too high a target. Air New Zealand’s business model now must prioritise the environmental bottom line and aim to leave our descendants a decent world to live in.

What about flying?

One last point: Only if we look at our own behaviours and re-think our travel futures, is it fair for commentators (i.e., me and many others) to pontificate about airline emissions. 

I’ve missed travel as much as anyone. I’ve missed my family, most of whom live in Australia and the US. It feels urgent to see them again, to hug them. 

But like businesses that changed in 2020, I and millions of others learned that technologies like Zoom can connect us with people important to us easily, frequently, and cheaply. The need for international travel is reduced. As a result, I saw and spoke to family more than during the previous 40 years since I moved to New Zealand. We feel closer as a family.

The urgency to be with family remains, and I’ll continue to talk with them more than ever via the web. But before flying internationally to be with them again, I’ll think harder than I did pre-2020 about the costs my travel might impose on nature and future generations. I won’t be going back to a heedless, thoughtless normal. 


Join the Conversation


  1. Your article needs to widely read, though the urge to travel is so strong in some that reason may not influence them at all. Another topic that needs to be discussed is what does migration mean. It doesn’t mean going home each year to see relatives. It needs to mean the same as it did for my ancestors and I imagine, Maori ancestors. International students need to be restricted in their trips home as well.

  2. Carbon free flight – yeah right. Dreams of hydrogen power flight overlook the CO2 costs of producing hydrogen. We don’t have enough carbon zero electricity to do this for a long time yet (especially if we keep needing more and more electricity to power communications – as is the current trend)

  3. Hydrogen flight possible by 2035 – Airbus development program. Low emission hydrogen other than from electricity possible but we need to build the infrastructure rather than another shovel ready low impact project.

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