* Ryanair, British Airways defend record
* Say industry paying high carbon taxes
* Say carbon taxes could damage EU periphery
By Tim Hepher and Conor Humphries
BRUSSELS, July 10 (Reuters) - The heads of some of Europe's largest airlines hit back on Wednesday against efforts to discourage Europeans from flying, arguing the industry was making huge strides in cutting its carbon footprint and that there was no shame in air travel.
The share prices of Europe's largest airlines fell this week when France announced a tax on air travel, the latest move by an EU government to discourage flying, which activists say is a major contributor to climate change.
"We are sensitive to the criticism that we are getting a free ride on the environment because frankly it is not true," Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary told a press conference in Brussels.
"We have a very good case to push back against these NGOs like the flight shame movement because actually this is an industry that is performing remarkably well and meeting its obligations towards a greener, cleaner planet," he said.
O'Leary was speaking as chairman of lobby group A4E (Airlines for Europe), which includes the continent's largest airline groups, Lufthansa and British Airways owner IAG.
The group argues that aviation has roughly halved the carbon footprint per flight over the past three decades and is spending billions of euros in more fuel efficient aircraft and investing in less damaging aviation fuel technologies.
O'Leary said his airline paid over 500 million euros of environmental taxes on a fuel bill of 2 billion euros last year, equivalent to around 4 euros per passenger.
"We are paying on behalf of our customers a penal level of aviation taxes and these taxes are continuing to rise," he said.
The industry's image has been damaged in recent months by the rise of the Swedish-born anti-flying movement and the concept of "flight shame."
Commercial flying accounts for about 2.5% of global carbon emissions today but without concrete steps, that number will rise as global air travel increases.
The aviation industry has set out a four-pronged plan to achieve carbon-neutral growth from 2020 and halve net emissions from 2005 levels by 2050.
But airline leaders acknowledge they have struggled to articulate their plans in a way that resonates with the public.
"I am not ashamed to be in this industry," said IAG chief executive Willie Walsh at the same briefing. "This is an industry that has a good story to tell, we just need people who are prepared to listen to understand the facts."
Walsh, who like O'Leary is from Ireland, said people living on islands and in countries at the periphery of Europe often had no real alternative to flying and that taxes could undermine the competitiveness of these regions.
A4E is also lobbying for the reform of the continent's air traffic control system, something it says could immediately reduce carbon emissions from the industry in Europe by 10%. (Writing by Conor Humphries; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)
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