I feel a little peeved when I look
at the cover of a travel publication and see a photo of some
celebrity positioned as an expert on a certain destination.
articles generally leaves me feeling self-righteous and superior:
Yes, I do know more about Paris than Sofia Coppola, more about
Austin than Dennis Quaid, more about Savannah than Bobby
Before I let my
grapes get too sour speaking on behalf of all of us travel experts
(we should be on the covers, right?), I acknowledge that the
celebrity angle works on me. I am more curious to know what the
celebrated think about a destination than what someone unknown
These musings about
celebrity and travel occurred to me in a very different context
last week as I sat listening to Virgin Atlantic Chairman Richard
Branson, the world's most famous airline executive, discuss his
hopes for cutting emissions from commercial aircraft. The week
before, Branson said he would invest $3 billion in renewable-energy
initiatives over the next 10 years.
He opened by
outlining, in broad strokes, his goals for emissions reduction and
making aviation a "sustainable" industry. He wants to stimulate
cooperation among airlines, airports, aviation manufacturers and,
if need be, governments to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 25% in
two years, in part by instituting procedural changes that would
require minimal or no investment.
recommendation concerned how planes descend. Currently, planes
approach touchdown with a "stepped" descent, dropping down then
levelling off and going forward, dropping down and then levelling
off and going forward, etc., until they've landed.
In a "continuous
descent" approach, on the other hand, a plane can reduce its thrust
much earlier in the flight and, in effect, glide down with engines
at minimum thrust, burning significantly less fuel.
Also outlined was a
new methodology for pre- and post-flight ground operations, wherein
planes would be towed to a grid near the runway and turn on their
engines only 10 minutes before takeoff (many engines need to be on
that long to warm up). Currently, a plane's engines may be on as
long as 30 to 90 minutes before takeoff.
He also spoke about
the need to better coordinate the 35 separate air traffic control
zones that span Europe. The current system results in routing that
makes flights longer than they need to be.
By the end of the
press conference, two things stood out. One, not all of his
suggestions were new: only the change in ground operations was
original. Two, when it came to details, he let his resident
experts, Chief Flight Officer Dave Kistruck and COO Lyell Strambi,
And herein lies the
difference between the power of celebrity and the power of experts.
Had I received an invitation to listen to Dave Kistruck and Lyell
Strambi discuss ways that carbon dioxide emissions could be cut, I
might well have concluded that I could put my time to better use
elsewhere, if I had even bothered opening the e-mail at all. If
Branson had not initiated the press conference, I would not be
writing about the procedural changes.
When I spoke to
Branson after the formal press conference, it was clear that he had
no shortage of genuine enthusiasm and passion for coordinating a
cross-industry forum to work on these initiatives. He has already
written to leaders of these sectors (including rival British
Airways) and was excited that Gatwick Airport was interested in
working with him to become more "green."
He appeared to
understand the principles and perhaps even some of the specific
science behind these initiatives. His comprehension of the
consequences of doing nothing to reduce emissions was crystal
clear. But it also seemed to me that when I asked him about some of
the more technical aspects, he was not as comfortable articulating
All of which is to
say that, going forward, I will be a little less peeved about
seeing celebrities on the covers of travel magazines.
Just as Branson is
using his celebrity to call attention to a serious industry concern
that might otherwise be buried in a pile of press releases,
Coppola, Quaid, Flay and other celebrities featured on the covers
of travel magazines bring notice to certain destinations
specifically and, more generally, to the glamour of
Just as Branson
left the details to Kistruck and Strambi, when it comes time for
the motivated reader to book a trip, the details are handed off to
All in all, it is,
from an industry standpoint, an efficient, low-cost and sustainable
system to get people onto planes.
Now, if we could
only come up with a way to convert the moxie of reality-show
"celebrities" into jet fuel, all our problems would be