Can Flying Be Addictive?

A brief look at ‘binge flying’

Posted Nov 04, 2015

I travel a lot for my job. It’s am occupational necessity. Last year alone I did over 20 work trips abroad that comprised over 50 flights (such as the six flights that I had to take to get to a conference in Uruguay and then back to the U.K.). One of my research colleagues at a conference in Taiwan jokingly accused me of being ‘addicted’ to flying. Nothing could be further from the truth. For me, flying is little more than a way to get from A to B. However, I have tried to turn my experiences into something more positive and have written a number of short articles providing tips about travelling abroad for outlets such as the British Medical Journal and the PsyPAG Quarterly (see ‘References and further Reading’ below).

However, there are a few papers in the academic literature that have proposed the idea of ‘binge flying’ and ‘flying addiction’ in the Annals of Tourism Research. One British research team (Drs. Scott Cohen, James Higham and Christina Cavaliere) have written various papers on flying, particularly the dilemma that many business travellers face in wanting to be ‘green’ and ‘eco-friendly’ but knowing that the amount of flying they are doing is contributing to climate change and leaving a huge ‘carbon footprint.’

One of the papers published by Cohen and his colleagues was entitled "Binge flying: Behavioural addiction and climate change." In their introduction to the topic, the authors referenced my 1996 paper in the Journal of Workplace Learning on behavioural addictions to argue there was now evidence that many behaviours could be potentially addictive even without the ingestion of a psychoactive substance. They then went on to say:

“[Two] articles in the popular press have further implicated frequent tourist air travel as a practice that may constitute behavioural addiction (Hill, 2007; Rosenthal, 2010). In stark contrast to most behavioural addictions, which are characterised by severe negative consequences for individuals directly, the destructive outcome attributable to excessive flying is premised upon air travel’s growing contribution to global climate change. Both Burns and Bibbings (2009) and Randles and Mander (2009) cite Hill’s (2007) interview in ‘The Observer’ with ‘Rough Guides’ founder Mark Ellingham, who coins the term ‘binge flying’ in critiquing the public’s growing appetite for holidays accessed through air travel”.

They also used my 1996 paper to make a number of points to support their premise that excessive flying can be conceptualized as an addiction. More specifically, they note:

“Griffiths (1996) notes that behavioural addictions may have ‘normative ambiguity’, in that moderate use is accepted but stigma can result from over-enactment of the behaviour, or compulsive consumption (Hirschman, 1992)…Even though addictions are typically conceptualised as purely negative, Griffiths (1996) distinguishes a number of possible addiction benefits that individuals may perceive, such as changes of mood and feelings of escape, positive experiences of pleasure, excitement, relaxation, disinhibition of behaviour and the activity as a source of identity and/or meaning in life…Not only does excessive tourist air travel meet this basic criterion of behavioural addiction where longer-term outlooks are sacrificed for immediate gratification, but tourist experiences also supply many of the psychological benefits that Griffiths (1996) uses to characterise sites of potential behavioural addiction. These include feelings of escape, heightened experiences of pleasure and excitement (a ‘buzz’ or ‘rush’), relaxation, disinhibition of behaviour and the activity as an arena for identity work and searching for meaning in life.”

To support their argument that flying can be an addiction, they assert there are three key characteristics that can be found in addictive behavior that can be applied to flying: (i) a drive or urge to engage in the behaviour, (ii) a denial of the harmful consequences of the behaviour, and (iii) a failure in attempts to modify the behaviour. As regular readers of my blog will know, I operationally define addictive behaviour as comprising six components (salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict and relapse), and as such, flying would be unlikely to be classed as an addiction by my own criteria. The authors interviewed 30 participants as part of their research but little of the qualitative data presented made any reference to addiction or elements of addictive behaviour. They somehow conclude that:

“Continued movement in consumer discourses towards a mainstream negative perception of the practice of holiday frequent flying may eventually find tourism consumption the further subject of query as an addictive phenomenon. Frequent air travel may then join gambling, smoking, shopping, video games and Internet use, (Clark & Calleja, 2008), amongst others, as ‘pathologised’ sites of behavioural addiction that reflect society’s (re)positioning of certain types of behaviour as socially dysfunctional.”

The concept of ‘binge flying’ and ‘flying addiction’ were more recently critiqued by Dr. Martin Young and colleagues in a 2014 issue of the Annals of Tourism Research. Their view closely matches my own (and they also cite my 1996 paper on behavioural addictions) when they asserted:

“We take issue with the application of a behavioural addiction framework in the context of consumption generally, and frequent flying specifically. We argue that while the conceptual lens of behavioural addiction may be seductive to some (cf. Hill, 2007), it is, in contrast to the position of Cohen et al. (2011), ultimately counterproductive to the development of a meaningful critical response to the question of frequent flying and environmental damage… There is, of course, a deep irony in even trying to view frequent flying through the lens of addiction. Tourism, traditionally the realm of freedom, unconstraint and abandon (Crompton, 1979; Sharpley, 2003) is now recast as a pathology, associated with the pernicious tendencies of the human psyche."

Young and colleagues’ paper asserts that the idea that flying in extreme cases could be classed as a behavioural addiction is “unconvincing” (and again is something that I agree with). The paper also adapts the 2013 DSM-5 criteria for gambling disorder (substituting the word ‘gambling’ with ‘flying’) to highlight that while it is theoretically possible for someone to have an addiction to flying, it is highly unlikely even amongst the most frequent of flyers. As they note:

“A diagnosed flying addict (and some may exist) would appear to differ from the frequent flyer who is feeling guilty about the environmental consequences of flying. Indeed, the latter would appear to be entirely rational. Flying may be associated with feelings of guilt and suppression, but so are many other activities, like driving to work, using plastic bags, and using electricity from coal-powered generators. This does not make flying an addiction as defined by the DSM-5. In addition, a flying addict would be addicted to the act of flying when, in reality, people fly as part of a broader tourism or business journey or experience. Flying may be incidental to the motivations for travel, merely an unavoidable part of attaining a particular experience. In other words, the focus of flying addiction is likely to be complicated and shifting, unlike, for instance, gambling addiction, that is more clear-cut.”

Pathologizing a behaviour like flying may be stretching the addiction analogy a little too far, but I don’t see a theoretical reason why someone could not become addicted. However, it’s hard to see what the actual object of the actual addiction might be. Is it the actual flying and being in the air? The thrill of take-offs and landings? Is it the feeling of being attended and catered for (especially when flying business class) by the airline staff? Is it the anticipation associated of visiting somewhere new? All of these suggestions could be empirically tested but probably from a purely motivational view rather than from an addiction perspective.

References and further reading

Burns, P., & Bibbings, L. (2009). The end of tourism? Climate change and societal challenges. 21st Century Society, 4(1), 31-51.

Clark, M., & Calleja, K. (2008). Shopping addiction: A preliminary investigation among Maltese university students. Addiction Research and Theory, 16(6), 633-649.

Cohen, S. A., Higham, J. E., & Cavaliere, C. T. (2011). Binge flying: Behavioural addiction and climate change. Annals of Tourism Research, 38(3), 1070-1089.

Crompton, J. (1979). Motivations for pleasure vacation. Annals of Tourism Research, 6(4), 408–424.

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.

Griffiths, M.D. (2003).  Tips on…Business travel abroad, British Medical Journal, 327, S38.

Griffiths, M.D.  (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Tips on...Conference travel abroad. Psy-PAG Quarterly, 83, 4-6.

Higham, J. Cohen, S. & Cavaliere, C. (2013). 'Climate breakdown' and the 'flyer's dilemma': Insights from three European societies. In: Fountain, J. & Moore, K. (Eds.). CAUTHE 2013: Tourism and Global Change: On the Edge of Something Big (pp. 321-324). Christchurch, N.Z.: Lincoln University.

Hill, A. (2007). Travel: The new tobacco. The Observer, May 6. Located at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2007/may/06/travelnews.climatechange

Hirschman, E. C. (1992). The consciousness of addiction: Toward a general theory of compulsive consumption. Journal of Consumer Research, 19(2), 155-179.

Randles, S., & Mander, S. (2009a). Practice(s) and ratchet(s): A sociological examination of frequent flying. In S. Gössling & P. Upham (Eds.), Climate change and aviation: Issues, challenges and solutions (pp. 245-271). London: Earthscan.

Rosenthal, E. (2010, 24 May). Can we kick our addiction to flying? The Guardian, May 24. Located at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/may/24/kick- addiction-flying

Sharpley, R. (2003). Tourism, tourists and society. Huntingdon: Elm Publications.

Young, M., Higham, J.E.S. & Reis, A.C. (2014). ‘Up in the air’: A conceptual critique of flying addiction. Annals of Tourism Research, 49, 51-64.