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Helena: why I am flight free

Helena Ritter explains why she made the decision to quit flying

29 Oct 2019 2 min read

In October 2018 I moved to Edinburgh from London to study for my Masters degree. It was the first time I had even vaguely considered flying to university.

It dawned on me that the carbon savings I'd made through my lifestyle choices to stop eating meat or reduce the plastic I bought would be obliterated if I were to hop on just one flight. I made the decision to quit flying then.

The choice to stop using airplanes as transport was not very hard for me to make. I don’t make that statement as a way to prove my green credentials, I say it because flying in no way feels like a necessity in my life. However, I know that being able to give up air travel so easily is a result of my privilege.

In my 23 years, I have travelled pretty extensively on planes, to Australia, Peru, Uganda, China, Canada, and multiple European countries. It feels obnoxious and hypocritical to assure someone who is saving up to travel abroad for the first time or go on a rare and well-deserved holiday, that not flying isn’t a sacrifice. I am a different person because of the experiences I’ve had across the world.

The people I’ve met and friendships I’ve made have taught me kindness and generosity beyond words, whilst dragging me out of my comfort zone to see outside the perimeter of what I thought I knew. I’m deeply grateful that I had those opportunities. This is where I struggle in telling other people that they should stop flying, especially if it’s someone who has not been able to travel.

Yet we must stop. For the average air-travelling Brit, the privilege of flying is just that, a privilege, not a right or necessity. We are poisoning the planet and millions of people with our holidays.

Thankfully, not flying does not mean an end to travelling. I’ve been using trains, coaches and ferries since I stopped taking flights, and it’s resulted in very fun travelling experiences so far. From hitchhiking with friends in Europe, to a solo bike-packing trip in Snowdonia and exploring Scotland by train, I have experienced places and met people that I would never have come across if I’d travelled by plane.

There are sacrifices too though, particularly in the loss of time with friends and family that live outside Europe. I have family in Australia who I have no idea when I will next see. Saying goodbye to a friend who returned to her home in Chile at the end of university was hard, because I knew I wouldn't be able to visit her without flying.

I am painfully aware of my hypocrisy. I have emitted more greenhouse gases from my many flights than a family in the Global South will in their combined lifetimes (and that’s not including all my other carbon emissions as a person living in the West).

I know this, and honestly? I feel incredibly guilty about it. The flip-side of these feelings however, is that I now understand the contribution my ‘normal life’ as a white, middle class, British citizen makes to the climate crisis.

This knowledge gives me a responsibility to do all I can to stop living that way, and push for the systemic changes needed to halt ‘business-as-usual’ consumption and pollution. Pledging to be flight free is one of the ways I am doing that.

Picture shows a low stone wall with Helena's bike resting against it. Behind the wall are green grassy fields and rocky tall hill ranges.
Bikepacking in Snowdonia