On ditching air travel: an interview with Alex Kassapis
Alex studied Law in the University of Warwick, and from the magic of the internet, I speak to him from my living room in Athens, while he is based in a communal space in Iceland. He tells me about how his flatmate in Warwick told him about a programme called European Solidarity Corps and his immediate exploration of any environmental positions he could find through the organisation. This is how he ended up in Iceland: the ESC powers SEEDs Iceland which offers young people aged between 18 and 30 the opportunity to volunteer in Iceland for a period (usually) of 5 months.
I had noticed Alex’s (almost) plane-free trip from Greece to Iceland from Instagram, and when I read a feature on air travel online a few weeks ago, I knew I had to talk to him.
Going back to the beginning, Alex tells me that recycling doesn’t do the general area of sustainability justice: he was always interested in the emissions that came from agriculture - around 26% - and this was enough to motivate him to incrementally cut his meat consumption. This was a long process that began in his first year of university when he was trying to reduce his meat intake: he found it almost impossible and in second year he (“finally”) became vegetarian; slowly he eliminated all non-vegan products from his lifestyle which took him months and was a dilemma he describes as one that was full of disappointment which also “hurt his brain.” He managed to become fully vegan when he arrived in Iceland.
He tells me that through this journey he always tried to identify different chunks of global emissions and the ways that he interacted with them. So, when he was offered the opportunity for his travel expenses to be fully covered by ESC - a privilege that he wanted to highlight throughout our conversation - he decided to take the majority of this trip without using aeroplanes. In his own personal research and through the classes he engaged with during his time as a law student, he became passionate about the sharp inequalities that are highlighted in the statistics. The emissions coming from the aviation industry are the most unequally distributed: a study estimated that just 1 percent emits 50 percent of CO2 in commercial aviation - a figure that shocked him and highlighted to him the essence of sustainability. Just around 5 to 10 percent of the global population can take an international flight, which he labels as “an injustice committed against those who are not accountable for the state of our climate.” Statistics indicating the future of aviation are disappointing: Airbus will try to develop hydrogen fuel lines by 2035, and say that the transition will be slow while flights are, nonetheless, incrementally increasing. Bearing in mind the low-cost flights that do not represent the real costs of flying; especially domestic flights which emit a big chunk of emissions despite the ample alternatives such as train connections.
He defines sustainability to me as “how everyone in the world can meet their needs while sustaining the future populations: we all live unsustainably - we surpass the resources and emit emissions and waste. This makes me feel uncomfortable. I want to be in a position where I can say that my way of life does not harm the natural balance in the world. Unfortunately, this is very difficult due to the ways that our society has developed.” It is the conscious decisions that we need to make: the thought of living sustainably and respecting other humans and lifeforms is a strong motivational factor that convinced him that by taking a bus and then a ship and then a train to reach Vienna instead of simply taking a plane, was enough for him.
Alex travelled from Athens to Patra and then took a 22 hour boat ride from Patra to Italy. In Italy, he took several (delayed) trains to Vienna from where he took a plane to get to Iceland. The two-day trip had significant difficulties: his unpreparedness in the boat-ride: seeing others equipped with tents, while he and his backpack tried making due with three plane-style seats; and the several train delays in Italy that led to other delays in his trip. However, he tells me that he enjoyed the journey: he met so many people along the way and travelled through all these places rather than sitting in a plane and appearing in a spot thousands of km away. All different means of transport had their own value, especially the ship he spent 22 hours in. This experience gave him the opportunity to take a pause and a break from thinking: he was travelling from point A to B in two days - what he describes as “plenty of time” - he had no other obligations apart from travelling and enjoying the environment around him, despite the struggles that COVID-19 requirements brought along. It was a very mindful journey. He even ended up in a little village in the middle of the Alps. Alex asks me if I think that this is enough, and I think: very few people can actually talk about these experiences as so many of us depend on air travel. It is funny how we see even a single flight as being an exhaustive task but that is because we do not see what goes behind travelling: something that he has now come to appreciate.
One of the largest barriers to switching from air travel to other forms of travel was the massive costs that, luckily, were covered for him. The lack of connectivity between countries contrasted to the massive, cheap and immediate availability of air travel makes this alternative inaccessible. The massive subsidies given to airlines - especially in light of COVID - relative to the support that other means of travel acquire create an unfair advantage for unsustainable means of travelling.
Alex wants to actively change the system, put pressure on the aviation industry. However, he will go on a plane again. On his way back to Greece he tells me he wants to fly to Edinburgh - the closest destination to Iceland - and then he will attempt to take a train back to Greece and on this journey. He pulled up his bag and showed me a tag he made and sewed on his second-hand backpack and travelling companion asking “still eating meat”? He wants the world to find more information about our mindless practises with massive costs risking social collapse (scratch that, the wellbeing of our planet), and in a way, his (almost) air-free journey was a way of challenging that system that has been so entrenched in our perception of some of the most extraordinary things - such as travelling.