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North American airlines need to stay ahead of sustainability curve

As flight shaming becomes more prevalent in news headlines and a dominant force in social media, airlines that do not give their attention to a long term strategy for sustainability could, at some point, find themselves at a competitive disadvantage. 

But strides in sustainability, while both commendable and necessary, are slow in nature, and even as progress is being made it might not be at an adequate pace to satisfy the growing detractors of air travel. 

Flight shaming is not as strong in North America as in other regions of the world, but North American airlines understand that the industry as a whole needs to communicate its environmental stewardship better.

But is there really a unified message being delivered by the airline industry? 

Summary

  • For now, North American countries are not feeling the same pressure from the flight shaming movement as Europe is.
  • Delta Air Lines believes that investors are increasingly placing importance on environmental, social and governance issues (ESG).
  • The industry's pace in adopting sustainability initiatives could be too slow for some critics. 

Rail travel is not a strong alternative means of travel for most of North America 

Dr Barry Humphreys, aviation consultant, former director at Virgin Atlantic and former senior manager with UK Civil Aviation Authority, recently wrote a report in Airline Leader in which he concluded: “Aviation has again quickly become a prime focus of the environmental campaigns. Politicians in France and the UK, for example, have raised the prospect of a ban on all domestic air travel, especially where a rail alternative is available.  No matter how unlikely such a ban might be in practice, the proposals add to the general anti-aviation agenda in Europe. In Scandinavia there has been the emergence of campaigns such as flygskam (flying shame), tagskryt (train bragging) and even smygflyga (flying in secret).” 

See related report: The Environment Rears its Head Again 

North American countries do not have the same level of rail infrastructure as do other European countries, and even as there have been recent efforts in the US to bolster high speed rail systems outside the Northeastern corridor, nothing has materialised. 

See related report: US airlines and climate change; environment concerns mount-slowly 

For some Canadians air travel is a necessity, concluded WestJet CEO Ed Sims at the recent CAPA Canada Summit in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “…In a market as vast as Canada…the sheer geography will mean that flying for many is a necessity of the way in which we move around this huge, expansive land, rather than a luxury”. 

Mr Sims concluded that “it is probably the luxury and discretionary end that will feel the downdraft of flight shaming before those for whom flying is simply an everyday fact of life”. 

Even as Canada’s unique geography creates a certain reliance on air transport, Mr Sims concluded that North American airlines need to stay at the forefront of biofuel development.

Additionally, improving efficiency in day-to-day operations is also a key element of sustainability, he stated. As an example, Mr Sims highlighted using more efficient navigation procedures and approaches “that save hundreds of thousands of litres of fuel every single day on approach to a busy air space like Calgary”. 

Environmental sustainability is growing in importance with investors 

An emphasis on environmental responsibility is not limited to activists – investors are progressively paying more attention to environmental stewardship. 

Earlier in 2019, Delta CEO Ed Bastian explained that the combination of environmental, social and governance (ESG) is “something we are paying attention to. I think investors will increasingly pay more attention to [it], and it’s going to be a point of pride for Delta people...”. 

Mr Bastian concluded that ESG is “probably a bigger point of emphasis in Europe today than it is in the US. But it is going to grow here as well”. 

ESG criteria are a set of standards for company’s operations that socially conscious investors use to screen for potential investment. 

Delta also engages in everyday activities to reduce its environmental footprint; these include committing to eliminating single use plastics onboard aircraft and in its lounges, and phasing out the use of plastic wrappers for its blankets.

In addition to the social consciousness aspects of becoming more environmentally sustainable, Delta also recognises the practical reasons for fostering the elimination of waste. “…Sustainability goes hand-in-hand with efficiency because the waste is reduced…there is a cost savings associated with that”, Delta COO Gil West said. 

It could be time for the industry to be candid about the pace of environmental reform 

Delta and WestJet no doubt believe that sustainability needs to be a major tenet of their businesses, but is the commitment by  airlines around the world enough to silence the critics and seriously address the fundamental issue? 

Mr Humphreys suggested that some honesty from the industry could help, as too often airlines and airports focus on PR hype rather than explaining the reality. He stated that most aviation environmental initiatives are steps in the right direction but are small steps, given the size of the underlying problem. 

“That problem revolves around the simple facts that the expected growth in air travel will inevitably produce more emissions, and that for sound technical reasons the industry’s ability to replace fossil fuel is far more limited than that of most other sectors”, Mr Humphreys said. 

It could take decades for the industry to make significant inroads in the use of alternative fuels, and low fuel costs arguably provide some disincentive to bearing the initial costs of biofuel development.

But if fuel costs climb drastically – as they did a little more than a decade ago – interest in alternative fuels will no doubt spike at a similar rate to any rise in oil prices. 

Industry accountability for helping to slow climate change will continue to grow 

There is little doubt that the industry needs to step up its efforts to respond to growing criticism of its environmental footprint and create a unified message that acknowledges some of the challenges it faces in moving at a faster pace to reduce its carbon emissions. This should be a priority, despite the prospect of looming taxes on the industry in Europe

Scrutiny of the industry will continue to grow, and although some regions are more shielded from flight shaming than others, airlines in no country or region will ultimately escape the growing accountability they face to contribute to slowing the pace of climate change. 

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