Meet the commercial airline pilot turned climate activist

Todd Smith was able to fly and see the world thanks to the aviation industry. He was alarmed by what he saw while on his travels and was inspired to take action.

Todd Smith might appear to be flying somewhere exotic in his pilot uniform. However, he doesn’t have any plans to take to the skies. Two years ago, Smith failed to return to his career for environmental reasons, and the only reason he wears his uniform now is when he’s discussing the climate emergency at protests and talks. 

It wasn’t how he expected things to turn out. Smith was inspired by the Red Arrows’ twirling when he was a child and aspired as a pilot. He spent more than £100,000 on training before taking the helm at planes for the likes of Wow Air and Thomas Cook. 

The documentary Cowspiracy from 2014, which examines the environmental impacts of animal agriculture, was a catalyst for eco-awareness. “I transitioned to veganism and became more aware of the environment and the impact of consumer choices,” says Smith. 

After his 2018 Lyme disease diagnosis, his medical license to fly was temporarily revoked. He then traveled extensively across South America and South-east Asia. As he traveled
Smith was able to witness firsthand the effects of climate change on mass tourism and felt a growing sense dread. 

Thomas Cook, his employer at the time, was killed in an accident a year later. Smith was given more time and Covid grounded the aviation industry. He decided to rethink his career. 

“I felt a growing sense of eco-anxiety,” he recalls. “Seeing the airline industry want to increase its targets, which was in the opposite direction to what mainstream science was recommending, I felt a sense of betrayal. How could I prioritise my passion for flying when we need to collectively tackle the biggest existential threat to humanity?” 


‘I felt a growing sense of anxiety seeing the airline industry increase its targets,’ says Smith. Helena Dolby

Smith chose to return to aviation instead and put his energy into setting-up Safe Landing– an organization for climate-conscious aviation workers. Members include workers at airports and airlines, as well engineers and factory workers. 

The group makes four demands of industry leaders: honesty about the ‘total environmental impact of flying’; that they be realistic about the limits of technology to solve the challenge; transparency about the regulations required to reduce emissions; and that they have a plan that accounts for this and supports workers towards sustainable long-term employment. 

Smith, who is based near Reading, England joined Extinction Rebellion, (XR), and became a spokesperson for the global direct action group. “Extinction Rebellion has been a lifeline for me in building a community with people who really understand the reality of the climate situation,” he says. 

Aviation is the fastest growing source of emissions

Which is the fastest growing source for emissions? According to the EU aviation will be the fastest growing source of emissions. Image by William Hook

Smith describes his new stance as “not something that goes down well with the public, friends or family”, so he tries to explain his motivations while remaining sympathetic to where people are in their understanding of the climate emergency. 

Movements such as XR and the way the likes of Greta Thunberg have been able to mobilise so many on climate related issues make Smith feel optimistic about the future – if we act quickly. 

“It is entirely possible to have an economic system that values people’s health and wellbeing [as well as GDP] and acts on the climate challenge,” he says. “We need to reconnect as a community. All solutions are achievable if we work together on this as a collective; we often see the best in humanity in a crisis.” 

This article is the first in our ‘job swap’ series. Positive News will be profiling individuals who have swapped high-carbon jobs for more environmentally-minded ones over the next few weeks.

Main image: Helena Dolby 

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