"There are people in the world," Steve Porter told me, "who think that travel is bad."

We were talking during a break at the World Travel & Tourism Council Global Summit in Lisbon last week. Porter, president of InterContinental Hotels in the Americas, was expressing concern about the impact anti-travel forces might have on climate change regulation.

If anyone doubted that there are people who think travel is bad, that doubt was erased after a short video was shown to delegates. Shot in documentary style, the video provided voice-overs of people discussing travel's effect on the environment while images were shown of glaciers calving, post-Katrina flooding and unusually high tides. In no uncertain terms, the travel industry was accorded blame.

One woman, a representative from Greenpeace, criticized what she called "binge flying," the implication being that some frequently fly for reasons she considered  trivial relative to the damage that aviation causes.

"If travel is a sin, who is going to decide which trip is important?" EasyGroup Chairman Stelios Haji-Ioannou asked, not necessarily rhetorically.

Stelios emerged at the summit as one of the more thoughtful speakers. Brought up in a Greek shipping family, he has been steeped in transportation issues his whole life.

He has also observed environmental devastation -- and government reaction to it -- firsthand. About 15 years ago, one of his family's ships was involved in an oil spill that resulted in both human death and environmental damage. As a result, certain types of ships were banned from European waters.

Stelios said he felt that the Greenpeace representative's comments were "misguided" and that "extreme solutions are not sustainable." But he predicted that governments would become more directly involved in regulating air travel over concerns about climate change, and that the actions would not necessarily be subtle.

"Europe could ban all airplanes over 20 years old," Stelios said. "Similar things have happened. Cars have been banned from Athens at times."

His tone was not alarmist. He spoke knowledgeably about alternative fuels (as did Enterprise Rent-A-Car CEO Andrew Taylor) and challenged the offerings of some who peddle carbon offsets. Sitting on a panel next to Tom Arnold, chief environmental officer of TerraPass, a company that sells offsets, Stelios asked whether his products took into account emissions levels from different aircraft or if the offsets were calculated on the average of all flight emissions. Arnold said it was an average.

The answer seemed to anger Stelios. "The problem with carbon offsets is that it's still the wild, wild West," he said. "The reality is that it's greener to fly in a cramped middle seat on EasyJet than in business class in one of British Airways' 20-year-old planes. Somebody needs to come out with a clear definition of individual responsibility and duty."

He went on to say that he would sell offsets on his Web site. "It's a voluntary scheme. We're going to do it for two or three years, until the E.U. gets its act together and offers a proper offset scheme."

Stelios said that 40% of all carbon emissions come from the "built" environment, including hotels, and suggested that the pricing structures for his companies, which charge additionally for anything beyond basic services, was environmentally friendly. "By coincidence, being low-cost means a smaller carbon footprint. At EasyHotel, we charge for new towels, for television. If it costs the environment, it also costs [a guest's] budget."

Warming to the topic, Stelios, with tongue only slightly in cheek, added, "Start thinking about spending money as a proxy for how much carbon is consumed as a result of what you're doing. If you have a private jet, sell it. If you fly business class, fly economy. If you fly British Airways, fly EasyJet."

Given half a chance, the clowning promoter in Stelios will always surface. But his comments, buoyed by experience and some serious homework, brought a sense of clarity to a discussion that sometimes seemed muddled and, to paraphrase Enterprise's Taylor, paranoid.

Stelios and Taylor, who as innovative mavericks each had a significant impact on their respective industry segments, individually identified the importance of climate change early on and willingly embraced it.

I hope they assume a high profile on behalf of the industry in coming debates on climate change. The best counter to unreasonable people who think travel is bad is reasonable people who think travel is good.


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