COVID-19 | Will current travel restrictions help academics change their flying behaviour? by Lara Vincent and Oane Visser

With drastic restrictions on mobility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, international academic air travel for research, conferences, and defences has largely come to a halt. The sudden inability to hop on a plane and fly away makes us even more aware of how mobile academics have become over the past decades. The COVID-19 pandemic may provide the perfect opportunity to reassess and alter our travel behaviour now that we are forced to stay put, write Lara Vincent and Oane Visser.

Hypermobility is widely viewed as a cornerstone of contemporary globalised academics and a sine qua non for professional success in the increasingly competitive environment of higher education that requires the showcasing of research at academic conferences and elsewhere. Academics are pressured to be innovative and utilise travel to undertake and present distinguishable research (Nursey et al. 2019: 1). Data collection, conference attendance, and networking opportunities are three of the main reasons for international (short-term) mobility, all which are described by academics as essential for one’s visibility—and success—in the academia. This is consistent with the profession’s ranking as one of the three most mobile jobs in the world, with business executives and politicians filling up the other two spots (Mahroum 2000: 26).

Frequent air travel is gradually becoming an issue of debate in academia. Several European universities have introduced policies to reduce (the impact of) academic travel. In the Netherlands, a ‘climate letter’ drafted end 2018 by a group of prominent academics pushed for a progressive climate agenda to be adopted by Dutch universities, with strong support from the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU). In Belgium, Ghent University is one of the pioneers, with a travel policy that distinguishes ‘green destinations’ (with a travel time by train or bus below six hours) and ‘orange destinations (up to eight hours). For green destinations like Oxford, Frankfurt and Montpellier, flights are not offered anymore; for ‘orange destinations’, such as Geneva and Hamburg, train and bus are the preferred options.

But at most universities, it still seems business as usual regarding air travel. Unlike business executives and politicians, academics are deemed knowledge producers. The paradox between the abundant knowledge produced and circulated in academic settings about the far-reaching negative repercussions of climate change and continued frequent air travel by academics raises the question why the profession fails to move to more pro-environmental mobility.

Research by Tom Storme of Ghent University on the contradictory nature of knowledge and action regarding air mobility stimulated Lara to conduct her ISS Research Paper on this topic. She found that many of the 20 academics interviewed about how they view their academic travel behaviour mentioned psychological discomfort due to the inconsistencies between their knowledge and behaviour. This can be characterised as cognitive dissonance and can only be relieved with a change in attitudes or actions to match the other (Festinger 1957: 7).

The academics interviewed at the ISS stated that not travelling was viewed negatively in the ever-changing world of academia where transnational connections enhance the ability to be socially and professionally visible. As a result, the interviewees dismissed their dissonance by predominately adapting their attitudes to match their flight patterns, such as by comparing academic flight emissions favourably to other industries, emphasising the lack of control over their actions, compensating emissions by becoming more environmentally conscious in their personal lives, or highlighting the essential societal value of the research that the travelling enabled. Changing travel behaviour by reducing flying was seen as impossible when you want to build an academic career.

Ironically, it seems that 2020 has forced academics to re-evaluate their reliance on cross-border travel. The grounding of aeroplanes due to COVID-19 has forced academics to review their reliance on air travel, behaviour that was previously imagined as virtually impossible. PhD defences are now suddenly done online, part of planned conferences are being shifted online, and some face-to-face research is being substituted by online and phone interviews. Will these trends stick when the airspace is opened, or will we divert to our old habits?

The move to confine individuals to their houses and limit travel to contain the coronavirus has also drastically reduced the carbon emissions produced by air travel. The world has seen a reduction in pollution levels with satellites images showing clear skies over cities that were previously impossible to view from space (Collins 2020: 1). The pandemic has unexpectedly unleashed or accelerated pro-environmental mobility policies in various cities. Mostly notably, Milan is drastically reducing car use to rapidly make space for laying out cycling infrastructure in order to stimulate people to avoid public transport where it is difficult to keep enough distance to prevent the proliferation of the coronavirus.

While air traffic is likely to rebound substantially after the pandemic has been contained, it seems that the global lockdown has enabled academics to re-evaluate their need for hypermobility in a world where the repercussions of climate change are acutely experienced—a change that was deemed almost impossible until early 2020. The pandemic has shown that it is possible to go back to ‘normal’ levels of mobility when compared to today’s hypermobility, but the academia that demands air travel as way to ensure success may also have to be fundamentally transformed to allow for academics to conduct and showcase their research  differently. More online conferences, conferences with a mixture of online and offline presentations, and organising (or selecting) conferences based on their accessibility by ground transport may be some of the ways to go.

Acknowledgments: A word of thanks to the ISS academics who shared their views in the interviews.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.

About the authors:

Lara VincentLara Vincent was part of the 2018/2019 Masters students who graduated in December 2019. While at ISS she majored in Agrarian, Food and Environmental Studies, with a specialisation in Environment and Sustainable Development.


Oane Visser (associate professor, Political Ecology research group, ISS) leads an international Toyota Foundation funded research project on the socio-economic and environmental effects of -and responses to- big data and digitalisation in agriculture. He is an ISRF fellow for 2020-21.


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