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France Uses Climate Legislation to Replace Short Flights With Trains

Edward Russell
April 12th, 2021 at 2:30 PM EDT

Photo credit: France is moving towards codifying a ban on short-haul air routes where there is competitive train service. Flickr / Alex van Herwijnen

French legislators are moving forward with plans to limit short flights in favor of the country’s extensive high-speed rail network with a new law that bars most flights on select domestic routes.

Part of a broad climate bill that aims to cut carbon emissions 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030, the new prohibition would limit all flights on routes where train service takes less than two-and-a-half hours. The ban applies only to flights that cater to local traffic, and not ones that serve connecting flyers. The lower house of France’s legislature approved the bill on April 10.

If the law moves forward as expected, the restrictions would apply to flights operated by any airline, not just ones flown by Air France. The national carrier has already suspended flights between Paris Orly — the capital’s main short-haul gateway — and Bordeaux, Lyon and Nantes under conditions of its 2020 relief package, a spokesperson said. Flights on these routes from Paris Charles de Gaulle — the city’s main international and connecting airport — will continue.

Other routes that the ban could affect include Paris-Rennes, Paris-Strasbourg and Lyon-Marseille, an analysis of Cirium and SNCF schedules shows. However, only the Rennes and Marseille routes had regular flights prior to the Covid-19 crisis.

France’s move to codify the shift to trains for short flights is a unique state intervention into the market. In most places, governments have used a combination of investing in faster trains plus subsidized fares to entice travelers onto the rails. In many cases, airlines have recognized these efficiencies and partnered with rail operators to shift some traffic to the ground. For example, in 2019, KLM partnered with high-speed rail operator Thalys to replace one of its five daily Amsterdam-Brussels flights. While the tie up was touted as a sustainability move, it also freed up then limited and highly sought slots at Amsterdam Schiphol airport for potentially more lucrative flights.

Lufthansa similarly partners with Deutsche Bahn to replace some flights with trains in Germany. In December, the tie up will expand with the rail operator adding new “Sprinter” services between the Frankfurt Airport and both Munich and Nuremberg timed to connect to Lufthansa flights. However, the partnership is commercially and sustainability motivated — rather than codified in law as France is moving toward.

Even in the U.S., where reliable, fast trains are limited to just the Boston-New York-Washington, D.C. corridor, a new breed of private rail operators is looking at airline partnerships as a growth opportunity. As part of Florida-based rail operator Brightline’s under-construction line between Miami and the Orlando Airport, the company is looking at possible airline partnerships to boost ridership and potentially shift travelers to trains from the roughly 40-minute flight.

More such air-rail connections are also on the mind of Air France CEO Anne Rigail. In February, she told investors that the airline was “connecting our network to the train and facilitating the customer experience, digital and physical experience to be able to have these types of connection,” in addition to suspending the flights on the routes covered by the prohibition.

Although she did not provide more details, the airline offers travelers direct connections to the French high-speed TGV network at its Paris Charles de Gaulle hub. Air France lists 14 destinations, including Avignon, Lyon and Strasbourg, that travelers can book air-rail connections to via Paris.

And the ban on short flights has a tiny impact on Air France. The three routes that have already been suspended — Paris Orly to Bordeaux, Lyon and Nantes — represented just under 5 percent of the carrier’s domestic France capacity in 2019, Cirium data shows.

France’s climate measure comes days after the government moved on a €4 billion ($4.8 billion) plan to recapitalize Air France-KLM. The plan converts some of the €10.4 billion in state loans the group received in 2020.


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