This document is the result of group work carried out within the Air and Space Academy. They are most often intended to be inserted in an official document of the Academy, but remain provisional for the moment.

Will “sobriety” prevail in air travel – and in what form?

This article, written as part of the “Energy and Environment” Commission of the Air and Space Academy, is not an official document of the Academy, but the result of a joint drafting coordinated by Éric Dautriat with the contribution and agreement of the following members: Pierre Andribet, Philippe Forestier, Jean-Michel Fourtanier, Jean-Marc Garot, Alain Joselzon, Michel Wachenheim

In order to discuss possible sobriety in the field of air transport, it is essential to place it in a general context.

Sobriety is a concept with variable contours, which we must strive to distinguish from energy efficiency, even if the two concepts are linked: the first concerns behavior and uses, the second technical and operational solutions (as for aviation: performance improvement, alternative fuels, flight optimization). The former is more complex and controversial than the latter; it can induce untimely collateral effects; It calls into question, by definition, acquired lifestyles and the very definition of “real needs”. It can result from two opposite but converging approaches: on the one hand, a societal choice aimed at curbing the runaway consumption of recent decades; on the other hand, a complementary response to decarbonisation, insofar as energy efficiency and carbon absorption solutions (in particular in the form of offsets, for aviation) will not be sufficient within the target timeframe. It can be voluntary, even spontaneous, very individual or on the contrary organized at the level of society; it may be constrained by restricted supply or rising prices; It may or may not be subject to incentives from the public authorities, which are also responsible for creating the optimal conditions for it to occur. For air transport, all these modes can coexist; In addition to a change in behaviour that is likely to be quite marginal at least initially, what seems most likely is a “sobriety”, if we can still call it that, induced simply by an increase in ticket prices following the use of alternative fuels.

The debate on sobriety, which has recently been greatly amplified by the geopolitical crisis of energy, is essentially European. As far as air transport is concerned, which is essentially global, this is a very serious disadvantage. However, this situation, perhaps temporary, is not enough to prohibit reflection on a model of society and a model of transport specifically European: air transport is not an above-ground activity (dare we say). In particular, the development of virtual relations impacts the frequency of professional flights, and tourism is, in itself, the beginnings of questioning in its current form – although the return to normal life post-pandemic shows a thirst for travel to quench, and that distant travel, prerogative of the plane, is in any case a civilizational fact that must be preserved and whose effects must be measured. beneficial societies.

Sobriety is linked in particular to two other concepts that feed the ecological and social debate: sustainable development, of which it is, basically, a component; and degrowth, a concept variously used and tending to be a source of misunderstanding. It is necessary to distinguish this notion from the first concept, even if partial, targeted, thematic “decreases” may accompany it.

One may be tempted to think that between energy efficiency, especially in the aviation sector, and sobriety, the latter is by far the fastest to implement. In short, all we have to do is decide it.

This is surely simplistic and misleading. Voluntary developments will most likely be gradual, and the introduction of constraints, which in itself is undesirable, would require, as has been noted on several occasions, a minimum of social consensus, which is not achieved today, in particular
for air transport, despite some militant positions. Sobriety cannot replace the “technical” search for efficiency, which is even the most urgent and ardent obligation. However, we can imagine a coupling of the two, for example if the gradual arrival of increasingly carbon-free flights
made it possible to satisfy, at a higher price, the desire for sobriety of some users.

The most important thing is to get rid of postures and preconceptions on both sides. Aviation bashing is unfair and ridiculous; Conversely, the technical and conservative refusal to question the energy voracity of contemporary societies, including aviation (in its rightful place, no more, no less) is a dead end. Between drunkenness and sobriety, you have to choose; Conversely, sobriety and effectiveness are not rivals but complementary, at dosages that no one can yet predict. It is a great and noble subject of public debate, a political subject if ever there was one.

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