top of page
  • Writer's pictureAndreas Hardeman

Aviation's Overton Window

Updated: May 19, 2021

(Originally published on 11 October 2019)

With all the political upheaval around the globe in recent years, there has been no shortage of articles about the Overton Window and how it explains (or not) the seismic shifts in our socio-political landscape.

To briefly recap, the concept of the Overton Window was first developed in the mid-1990s by Joseph (“Joe”) Overton when working for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan, USA. Overton tragically died in 2003 when his ultralight aircraft crashed soon after takeoff but his legacy lives on.

In theory, the Overton Window represents the boundaries of "acceptable" public policy and discourse – i.e. what a politician can support without coming across as being too "extreme". Opposing forces in society constantly try to shift this window to one side (or at least broaden it) to make formerly "radical" ideas seem more "mainstream" or, indeed, vice versa. Put differently, public officials cannot just pick any policy they please as if they were ordering wine from the menu. Instead, they have to choose from among policies that are politically acceptable at the time. The Overton Window defines that range of ideas and it shifts over time as it is subject to the trends of social thought and norms.

All social reform movements have to shift this window if they wish to make progress. If they are successful, an idea derided as unthinkable can become so inevitable that it is hard to believe it was ever otherwise. Does anyone today seriously think, for example, that driving without a seatbelt is a good idea? Or smoking on airplanes?

Could it be, therefore, that in 20 years from now we look back at ourselves and find it incomprehensible that we once considered it normal to fly between Amsterdam and Brussels, a distance of less than 200kms? Or that we allowed half-empty planes to take off? Or to not levy fuel duties on international flights? Time will tell.

Some have argued that the Overton Window is merely a description, not a tactic, and that shifting it doesn’t mean proposing extreme ideas to make somewhat less extreme ideas seem reasonable. But, of course, that is exactly how it is very often being used – and everyone knows it. Successive waves of popular activist movements (Extinction Rebellion being the latest incarnation) have been trying very hard to see how far the Window can be shifted to one side. So far, they have reached the point where climate policies so radical that it would allow people to take a flight only “every couple of years”, are now being discussed with a straight face by serious commentators and respected media.

The reality is, however, that policymakers only have four macro-scale policy levers at their disposal to achieve CO2 reductions, namely population, wealth, energy intensity and carbon intensity. No politician in their right mind would openly advocate for enforced population control or deliberately curtailing economic development to reduce the growth of air transport and its climate impact. Realistically, therefore, this leaves policymakers with only two levers for pursuing direct carbon reductions in the aviation sector: energy efficiency (via new technologies, materials and operations) and carbon efficiency (i.e. low-carbon sustainable alternative fuels). As it happens, these are precisely the two avenues that the aviation sector has long identified as having the greatest potential for achieving its climate targets.

Back to the Overton Window, instead of joining a side and trying to push or pull the Window in the opposite direction, we should shift it sideways in the direction of least resistance. Instead of advocating for unlimited aviation growth or none at all (options that meet with a lot resistance from both sides), why not join forces to accelerate the sustainability of air transport, something we can all agree on.


About the author: Andreas Hardeman (The Hague, 1967) is an internationally experienced air transportation lawyer, sustainability expert and an acclaimed aviation writer and commentator on current industry trends. Opinions in this blog are exclusively those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of his business associates or clients. He can be contacted directly at

4 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page