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Trends in Sustainability in the Aviation Industry

Trends in Sustainability in the Aviation Industry

Here's a helpful overview of what travelers and travel advisors should expect from the latest airline initiatives.

Last year, the International Air Transport Association approved a resolution calling for the global air transport industry to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. And while that date may still be decades away, airlines around the globe are upping the ante with new initiatives to reduce their environmental footprints. 

“It’s amazing how much effort there has been in the last couple of years by the airlines, and from all of aviation, to focus on sustainability,” says Eliot Lees, vice president and managing director, clean transportation at ICF, a global advisor and digital services provider. “They’ve come from being one of the least active, the least sensitive to their environmental impact, to being one of the most active and far-reaching sectors in terms of trying to reduce their footprint.”

Lees says that the aviation industry’s motivation to become more eco-friendly is rooted in concerns about increased government regulation. “The airlines are worried about getting regulated, and potentially limited growth because of their emissions contribution,” he explains. “So they’re trying to get ahead of regulations, to drive this themselves instead of being told how to do it.” 

Dr. Jesko-Philipp Neuenburg, managing director, global travel and aviation sustainability lead at Accenture, an information technology company, says that public demand is also a driving force behind new sustainability initiatives. “Pressure from consumers to take action on the climate is seen by some airlines as an opportunity to differentiate [themselves], with more sustainable product offerings that can generate new growth,” he explains. 

Sustainability Strategies

Reaching the industry’s goal by 2050 is an ambitious undertaking, but it is doable if progress continues at the appropriate pace, according to Neuenburg. “Reaching net zero will be challenging, as many of the technical solutions that exist today are still in their infancy,” Neuenburg says. “It will require significantly more investment and innovation to get there, and the emissions reduction trajectory will likely not be linear but rather follow an accelerating curve, with smaller reductions in the first decade and increasingly larger reductions in the second and third decade towards 2050.” 

The airline industry’s tactics to improve sustainability can be broken down into various components, notes Lees. “The single largest piece of the solution is sustainable aviation fuel,” he says. “The airlines are making tangible moves, and in the last few years it’s become more noticeable. There’s the most dominant [initiative], which is reducing emissions from jet fuel, and there are alternative propulsion systems, like electric and hydrogen. But then there are also the moves to reduce cabin waste and rethink business processes to reduce environmental impact.”

On that front, Lees predicts continued changes in consumer-side practices. “What you’ll see airlines doing is moving away from single-use plastics,” he says. “That’s really the largest contributor to cabin waste. You’ll see more things that get recycled and more things that will be reused.”

Trends in Sustainability in the Aviation Industry

The Carbon Offset Challenge

Another tactic to improve sustainability is to give passengers the option to pay to reduce their carbon footprint. But that approach has produced only mildly positive results, according to multiple observers. 

“A number of airlines have launched programs where you can buy offsets to reduce the environmental impact of your travel, and it hasn’t really been that successful,” says Lees. “What we find is that you, me and other consumers aren’t really willing to spend extra money to reduce our footprint, however we want reduced impact on the environment.”

Justin Smith, president of The Evolved Traveler, a travel agency and member of Ensemble Travel Group in Beverly Hills, Calif., agrees that the carbon offset option can be a difficult sell. “While this is convenient to offer and looks good, the degree of consumer engagement is negligible, estimated between 1 percent and 3 percent,” he says. “The issue is that airline offsets are transactional, initiated by the consumer at check-out, and this does not produce tangible results in its current form. The primary reasons are that there is no universal system to purchase offsets across airlines, it's confusing and often hard to find and, understandably, most consumers do not know exactly what they are paying for and will bypass the option.”

“Most of us are more likely to pay for extra legroom or an upgrade, things that make our personal experience more convenient and enjoyable,” Smith adds. “We are not yet to the point where the onus of carbon offsetting can be on the consumer. That is a big hurdle the travel industry needs to overcome before we have the clients buy in, literally and figuratively. Carbon offset being a consumer-driven issue will take a while to happen. Until then, it is up to us in the industry to offset our collective footprint as best as possible.”

Among passenger segments, business travelers are the most likely to participate in carbon offset programs, according to Lees. “What we are seeing is a much greater focus from corporate travelers and companies that are making their own commitments to reduce the business travel footprint and are willing to spend money to do this,” he says. “Increasingly, companies are investing in the lower environmental impact of travel. They will be conscious of emissions and airlines [and] how their corporate travel is impacted — perhaps to the point of making decisions about which aircraft to fly on.” 

Recent Efforts

Various carriers are exploring new ways to reduce their footprint. Air Canada, for example, recently announced a purchase agreement for 30 ES-30 electric-hybrid aircraft being developed by Heart Aerospace of Sweden, as well as a new partnership with CHOOOSE, a global climate technology company that is developing the airline’s new carbon offset program. 

Valerie Durand, Head of Investor Relations and Corporate Sustainability at Air Canada, is among the industry leaders predicting a positive response to recent sustainability initiatives. “We are certain our customers appreciate Air Canada's industry leadership position, notably with our modernized and efficient fleet, and recognize the value of investing in new, cutting-edge technologies that will help foster a more sustainable aviation industry, while continuing to bring them safely to their destinations,” Durand says, noting that the latest announcements are just part of the company’s ongoing efforts. 

“Earlier this year, Air Canada also announced an order for 30 Airbus A321XLR,” Durand notes. “The A321XLR is projected to yield up to17-percent lower fuel burn per seat than the previous generation narrow-body on a typical transcontinental flight and up to 23 per cent versus previous generation wide-body aircraft on a transatlantic flight.”

What Aviation Sustainability Means for Travel Advisors

Recent sustainability efforts within the airline industry are an “excellent, giant step in the right direction,” says Smith. “The airlines are effectively putting their money where their emissions are by investing in electric planes and SAF [sustainable aviation fuel]. This would indicate an all-in approach toward a sustainable future for the industry. 'Future' is the keyword, however. While SAFs are on the horizon, 200-passenger electric planes are quite a way down the road.”

Smith says that travel advisors should continue to educate clients about the benefits of sustainable travel. “When it comes to promoting sustainable tourism practices, our efforts as advisors have to go far beyond promoting the airlines' endeavors,” he explains. “Engaging our clients in authentic, sustainable tourism practices will ultimately increase sales. As the momentum continues to build behind sustainable tourism, clients will start seeking travel advisors who can shine a light on this matter and implement it for them. People intrinsically want to know they are doing something good; even better when it is for a greater-good cause. When it comes to travel, if we can get them to see how we can manifest this for them and engage them with it, their participation will change from passive to active, on every level.”

Indeed, a fully sustainable aviation industry is just one part of the puzzle when it comes to creating a more eco-minded travel and tourism industry, according to Smith. “The appeal is certainly there,” he says. “However, the appeal is not currently translating into reality. The travel industry can, collectively, move the dial on this more quickly once we display our commitment to all forms of sustainable tourism and travel, and start engaging the public in the process. Right now, the public stills sees this issue as an aside, and we are the ones who can change that — and until we do, the dial isn't going to move too much.”

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