Revealed: BA owner pressured government to hide emissions data
British Airways doesn’t want the public to know it has the highest emissions per passenger on transatlantic routes
The owner of British Airways is seeking to conceal the environmental impact of its flights by lobbying against a UK government proposal to require airlines to inform passengers of every trip’s carbon emissions when booking, openDemocracy can reveal.
The airline may have the most to lose if the proposal is introduced, because a study found it had the highest emissions per passenger on transatlantic routes.
A Freedom of Information request revealed that International Airlines Group (IAG), BA’s parent company, had argued against the proposal when responding to the Department for Transport’s 2021 consultation on its ‘Jet Zero strategy’.
In the consultation, the Department for Transport (DfT) said it was considering “mandating the provision of environmental information to customers at the time of booking flights”. It said this would “increase public awareness of carbon emissions and climate change” and help customers choose the lowest-emission option for their trip.
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Responding to the DfT’s proposal, IAG said: “Overall, we disagree with the focus outlined on influencing customers… We also believe that there is already significant information enabling customers to make informed decisions regarding the carbon impact of their flying.
“UK airlines already complete multiple emissions reports and also provide direct information to their customers, so adding an extra requirement to provide information would create an additional administrative burden with no incremental benefit to customers.”
In its proposal, the DfT cited a 2018 study by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), an independent research group, which found that airlines operating on transatlantic routes had major differences in emissions per passenger.
The ICCT study revealed that BA was the worst-performing airline, burning 63% more fuel per passenger kilometre than the best (Norwegian), and 22% more than the industry average.
BA did badly because it had a high proportion of premium seating taking up more space on its planes, and also because it used less fuel-efficient aircraft. The company has argued that its investment in modern aircraft means its fleet is now more fuel efficient than it was at the time of the ICCT study.
Aviation accounted for 8% of UK emissions in 2019, and its share is due to rise sharply as passenger numbers rise and other industries decarbonise. The Climate Change Committee, an independent statutory body set up to advise the government on emissions targets, warned in 2019 that aviation was likely to be the largest carbon-emitting sector in the UK by 2050.
BA was the worst-performing airline on transatlantic flights, burning 63% more fuel than the best airline
Airlines for America, which represents major US carriers including United and American Airlines, also opposed the DfT’s proposal. It wrote: “We do not support mandating the provision of environmental information to customers at the time of booking flights.
“In significant part, this is because it is very difficult to make apples-to-apples comparisons among flights, given the array of environmental parameters at issue.”
United and American Airlines also scored below the industry average for fuel economy in the ICCT study.
Some other airlines, including easyJet and Ryanair, supported the proposal, according to responses to the consultation obtained by The Big Issue and shared with openDemocracy.
Hiding the environmental impact
Tim Johnson, director of the Aviation Environment Federation, said: “By lobbying against the government's plan to disclose information about the emissions of a trip at the time of booking, IAG and US airlines are hoping to conceal the environmental impact of flying from both their passengers and the public.
“It's simply not true to claim that consumers have enough information already. What [BA and the US airlines] don't want you to know is that choosing a seat on [their aircraft] can typically increase your CO2 emissions by around a quarter to a third, or in the case of British Airways by 63% on some routes, studies have shown.
“No wonder these airlines have been arguing against government plans to give their passengers this information before they book.”
Johnson said some flight comparison sites gave estimated emissions for trips, but that those calculations were often based on assumptions because of a “lack of transparency from airlines”.
He urged the government to “require airlines to disclose and share CO2 emissions per passenger so they can be incorporated at the point of sale, whether that is on an airline's own website or through a comparison site or travel company”.
ICCT also called for passengers to be given information on emissions for each flight, saying this was “key to empowering consumers to reward carriers that invest in fuel efficiency and, in the long term, sustainable aviation fuels”.
openDemocracy attempted to book tickets on the websites of BA, United and American Airlines and found that none gave passengers information about the emissions of trips at the time of booking.
BA did not respond when asked why it did not show environmental information to passengers at the time of booking.
A spokesperson said BA was reducing emissions in the short term by “improving our operational efficiency, investing in more efficient aircraft, funding carbon offset and removal projects to mitigate emissions on UK domestic flights and progressively introducing sustainable aviation fuels”.
BA has a page on its website called ‘Planet’, where it outlines its commitment “to becoming carbon net zero by 2050” and has a tool allowing passengers to calculate their flight’s carbon emissions and pay a fee to offset them.
Airlines for America said it opposed giving environmental information at the time of booking because it was not possible to give an accurate estimate as “each flight has so many variables”.
The government’s Jet Zero strategy, published in July, said there would be a “call for evidence” this autumn on providing environmental information to passengers.
A DfT spokesperson did not respond directly when asked if the government still planned to mandate the provision of environmental information to airline customers at the time of booking. The spokesperson said: “We’re still consulting.”
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From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?
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