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20 Pledges for 2020: Is it enough to just be flight-free, or should I be shouting it from the rooftops?

20 Pledges for 2020: Is it enough to just be flight-free, or should I be shouting it from the rooftops?

I hit upon an interesting conundrum this week. Is it enough to simply make the decision to go flight-free, or should one be championing it at every turn, arguing in favour of taking the train rather than the plane at any given opportunity? Should I be using the platform that I have, albeit small, to make the case against flying whenever possible?

The issue raised its head as a result of an interview I did for BBC News. It was an advice segment called “Your Questions Answered”, where members of the public got in touch with their travel queries, and I did my level best to answer them over Zoom while sweating profusely in my living room.

All the questions were, obviously, coronavirus related. None of them specifically mentioned flying, nor did I at any point advocate jumping on an aircraft – although perhaps it was implied. For instance, one woman asked if she would be safe booking a holiday to Greece, and I responded that, while nothing is risk-free, Greece currently has one of the lowest confirmed number of cases per 100,000 people in Europe and I’d therefore feel fairly confident holidaying there.

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While it’s certainly possible to reach Greece by train, it’s a pretty lengthy and pricey process. So, yes, I suppose in a way I was implicitly giving the go-ahead for a spot of air travel.

Anyway, I thought nothing of it, but someone on Twitter clearly did.

“Caught you on BBC News,” they tweeted. “Was concerned that you were so glib about people travelling and incensed to hear you say you would feel very safe booking travel to Greece. Was coming here to berate you for ignoring the environmental cost of travel and found you were a flight free advocate.”

They followed up with: “Did I miss you promoting flight-free means of travelling in the BBC News slot?”

I responded that, as there were no specific questions about flying, the topic hadn’t really seemed relevant. And that, although I have made it my personal mission to go flight-free this year, I still regularly answer consumer queries about flights and airlines as part of my job. (I’m not sure how helpful it would be to tell someone desperately trying to get a refund from easyJet that they should have travelled overland in the first place.)

“So flight free for you doesn’t mean you are an advocate for it?” they replied. “Wouldn’t your experience make avoiding flying easier for others?”

And that’s where I stopped interacting, ever the coward when it comes to being potentially shouted at on the internet.

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The encounter made me think though. I’m hardly hiding my light under a bushel with this whole flight-free thing – I write regular columns on the subject for a national news title, put it in my social media bio, go on podcasts talking about it, and tell people I meet at parties until they politely extricate themselves with a made-up excuse – but, at the end of the day, I still have a job to do.

There’s a line between reporter and activist; between journalist and lobbyist. It can at times feel uncomfortable to find yourself treading the murky water somewhere between the two, but there is (and should be) a distinction. Part of my role demands that I still know what innovations airlines are launching; when new flight routes open up; how much cabin baggage you can take for free (a seemingly never-ending story for Ryanair back in 2018). And that’s OK.

Many of our readers will fly – and frequently at that. Before this year, I was among them. And, while the plan was to use these 12 months to inspire people by showing just how accessible and enjoyable slow travel can be (even if it did turn out 2020 had other plans), it was never about shaming or berating people for their choices.

I’ve always found the most effective evangelism for whatever cause you’ve taken up is living your life in such a way that other people look at it and think, “damn – I want a piece of that!” Although this gut-puncher of year has given little opportunity for that thus far, I can only hope things are starting to change. As border restrictions ease and tourism grinds into second gear, I’m champing at the bit to get going again – and who knows? My next train trip might just make someone rethink the way they travel. We can but dream.

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