By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website
Britons are "addicted" to cheap flights and confused about the climate impact of flying, according to research.
Cheap flights have become a lifestyle choice even for the aware
In a government-funded study, even people living generally "green" lives said they were reluctant to fly less.
The Exeter University team that carried out the research says cheap flights have become a lifestyle choice.
Aviation accounts for about 7% of the UK's emissions, and research suggests Britain will not meet its climate targets without curbing the industry.
The government raised air passenger duty in February, and the European Union is set to include aviation in its Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which could increase costs further.
But the Exeter research suggests price hikes would have a minimal impact.
"We found that flying is quite embedded in peoples' lifestyle choices," said Stewart Barr from the university's Department of Geography.
"And it's not people on lower incomes taking these flights, it's middle class people taking more flights to go on city breaks, and they can afford to pay higher prices."
The findings come from a series of focus groups run in Devon in 2005, and from a prior questionnaire.
Researchers found that as many as one-fifth of the population regarded themselves as committed environmentalists, who would routinely take measures such as composting, recycling, and curbing water and electricity consumption.
"This group is the most receptive to arguments about reducing flights and most knowledgeable about the issue, but even they don't feel they can reduce flying because it's part of their lifestyle," observed Dr Barr.
"All groups said the state of knowledge about flying compared to other forms of transport is very confusing; you might have in a tabloid newspaper, for example, an article saying flying is bad next to a massive advert for Ryanair saying (Gordon) Brown's duty increase is wrong."
In July the Advertising Standards Authority ordered Ryanair not to repeat advertisements claiming that aviation accounted for just 2% of carbon emissions, because the company did not explain the figure was based on global rather than UK statistics.
Domestic aviation contributes less than 1% of Britain's carbon dioxide emissions. International flights are a much bigger issue, with the CO2 from all flights leaving the UK amounting to nearly 7% of the national total.
Aeroplanes also release other greenhouse gases including ozone, and affect cloud formation. This means their overall impact on global warming is about three times larger than their production of CO2.
The government maintains people are keen to reduce their carbon footprints.
"We know that more and more people are already taking steps to reduce their impact on the planet and there are a wide range of ways they can do this," said a spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which commissioned the Exeter research.
"Our role is to give them the information to make greener choices that are right for their circumstances."
But some observers believe there is an inherent contradiction within a government that wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while expanding airport capacity.
Expansion plans are lodged for many airports including Heathrow, Stansted, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Liverpool and East Midlands.
"I certainly wouldn't advise expanding them," said Brenda Boardman from Oxford University, "because the more you build them, the more people will use them.
Brits are opting to fly rather than experience traditional UK holidays
"I'm not at all surprised that people are confused, because you have Tony Blair saying it's unreasonable to ask people to stop flying; until you have politicians giving us some clear messages, people will be confused."
Dr Boardman's Environmental Change Institute (ECI) published research last year showing the government could not achieve its long-term goal of a 60% cut in national greenhouse gas emissions without curbing the aviation sector.
She also believes the increase in flying may be hurting the national economy, with Britons choosing to spend money holidaying overseas rather than in the UK.
Away from Britain, aviation is growing at spectacular rates, with India recently seeing a 45% increase in passenger numbers within a single year. It is the fastest-rising source of greenhouse gas emissions.
The Exeter research was unveiled at the Royal Geographical Society's (RGS) annual meeting in London.