Robert Silk
Robert Silk

At the start of the concluding press conference of IATA's general meeting in Seoul, South Korea, last month, a reporter from Reuters posed a rather blunt question to the industry officials on the dais: "Are you polluters?"

In response, Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr bristled. Airlines, he said, produce 2.5% of the world's emissions. So, by definition, they are polluters. But he emphasized the good the aviation industry does for humanity by fostering economic activity, cultural understanding and personal journeys.

"I wonder if the other 97.5% are doing as much good for this world as we do," Spohr said.

Never mind that a substantial portion of those emissions go toward activities such as generating electricity and heating houses; Spohr's point is still well taken. As a species we are obviously richer for our ability to travel the globe with an ease that would have been unimaginable for almost all of human history.

Still, as addressing climate change moves higher up the collective worldwide political agenda, the airline industry is facing an increasing challenge of both perception and action. Led by the Swedish teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg, a new concept called flight shaming, or flygskam in Swedish, has gained momentum in the past year. The movement, which is bolstered by Twitter hashtags like #istayontheground, appears to be having an impact. According to the Guardian, a recent Swedish Railways study found that 37% of people chose to travel by train rather than air, up from 26% in the fall. Meanwhile passenger numbers are on the rise at Swedish Railways while domestic passenger counts are falling at Swedish airports.

At the IATA general meeting, much of the sentiment from airline executives revolved around the notion that the industry is doing quite a bit to address its carbon footprint but not enough to communicate those actions to the public. After all, more efficient aircraft have enabled airlines to reduce the emissions impact per passenger by half since 1990. Further, IATA strongly backs an internationally agreed upon scheme that begins in 2021 and will require airlines to keep growth carbon-neutral. The long-term goal of the scheme is to reduce international aviation emissions to 50% of 2005 levels by 2050.

Still, most measures airlines are taking thus far will likely cause them little pain since it makes simple business sense to take advantage of more fuel-efficient aircraft.

One area, though, where a willingness by airlines to take a hit to the balance sheet that could make a substantial difference relates to sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). At present, SAF costs two to three times as much as conventional kerosene-based jet fuel. Emissions savings, meanwhile, can be as much as 80%.

Through well-developed tax and subsidy programs, governments have a role to play in reducing the cost premiums of SAF. But so do airlines by agreeing to more off-take deals at a price premium so that production can be brought up to scale. Several airlines, most notably United and KLM, have been leaders in this area. United, for example, entered into a partnership with Fulcrum BioEnergy in 2015 for construction of up to five refineries near its hubs. More recently, United agreed to purchase 10 million gallons of SAF each of the next two years from Paramount, Calif.-based World Energy, which until late last year was the only sustainable jet fuel refinery in the world.

More airlines must take similar steps unless they want movements like flygskam to fly even higher.

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