French Domestic Flight Ban Takes Effect In Push Toward Rail Use

French Transport Minister Clement Beaune

French Transport Minister Clement Beaune has hailed the new legislation as an "essential step" on the track to decarbonization.

Credit: John MacDougall/Getty

PARIS—France’s ban on domestic flights on routes for which rail alternatives of less than 2.5 hr. exist has taken effect, as the government encourages people to use less emissions-heavy modes of transport.

The French government initially came up with the idea at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, as a condition for providing billions of euros of state aid to Air France-KLM to weather the crisis.  

The rule was later broadened out, and after approval by the European Commission and public consultation, its publication in a decree on May 23 makes it officially part of French law.  

The decree means that flights on three routes—between Nantes, Bordeaux, Lyon and Paris-Orly—are now banned, as the journey can be made by train in less than 2.5 hours, the French Ministry for Ecological Transition and Territorial Cohesion said. France, home of the TGV high-speed train, has a well-developed rail network.  

“To reach carbon neutrality, we need to strongly reinforce our activities related to decarbonizing transportation, which still represents 30% of emissions,” Transport Minister (officially: Minister Delegate to the Minister for Ecological Transition and Territorial Cohesion, in charge of transport) Clement Beaune said. “As we strive tirelessly to decarbonize our ways of life, how can we justify flying between large cities that benefit from rapid, efficient and regular rail links?” 

Beaune said the publication of the decree was a “an essential step and a strong symbol ... This measure is a world-first that fits fully with the government’s policy to encourage the use of means of transport that emit less greenhouse gas.”  

The law has also been criticized, however.

French environmental non-governmental organization Agir pour l’Environnement said conditions attached to the law—namely, that train services involved must operate several times per day throughout the year, frequently and cheaply, allowing passengers to make the round-trip in a day and spend eight hours at their destination—meant that the law was effectively being made “inapplicable.” 

The shift from plane to train is already having an effect on Air France-KLM’s network.  

“Overall, the one dark spot in our network which is getting smaller and smaller is the French domestic market, where business and leisure demand continue to significantly drop,” Air France-KLM CEO Ben Smith said May 5 during the group’s 2023 first quarter results presentation. “We see a big transfer to the train on some routes, so we’re moving back capacity as quickly as we can.” 

The carrier has been stepping up efforts to cooperate with French rail operator SNCF through the Train + Air program, which allows passengers to make just one reservation that covers both the rail and air legs of their journey to a number of destinations.

Helen Massy-Beresford

Based in Paris, Helen Massy-Beresford covers European and Middle Eastern airlines, the European Commission’s air transport policy and the air cargo industry for Aviation Week & Space Technology and Aviation Daily.