The aviation industry in general - and airlines in particular - has long argued its contributions to society’s well-being, and rightly so. The sector’s contribution to the global economy, employment, connectivity and regional development speaks for itself and has done so for decades. Today, as an enabler, and according to the Air Transport Action Group, the aviation industry facilitates more than 62 million jobs, creates 2.7 trillion dollars in global economic impact and accounts for 3.5% in global GDP. If anything, the aviation industry is global by definition.
However, constantly and consistently emphasising merely the economic benefit the industry currently brings to society isn’t going to do the trick for much longer. While its global presence and relevance go largely undisputed, more and more stakeholders around the globe are demanding and expecting that the industry steps up its focus on global responsibility and sustainability as well. Examples of these developments are ICAO’s agreement on a carbon offsetting & reduction scheme for international aviation (CORSIA) in 2016 and, more recently, its formal adoption of a new global standard for aircraft CO2 emissions and the European Commission’s European Aviation Environmental Report, developed together with Eurocontrol, the European Environment Agency and the European Aviation Safety Agency.
Further globalisation of society will inevitably lead to higher expectations about sustainability, caring for the world of tomorrow and an increasingly demanding and younger customer base. Upcoming economies will account for hundreds of millions of potential passengers with strong purchasing power. Airlines will have to find ways of dealing with the challenges and expectations of future generations.
Although all segments in the aviation value chain have a responsibility in this respect, airlines need to be aware not to emphasise that airports, air traffic controllers, aircraft and engine manufacturers, politicians and regulators need to facilitate the sustainability of the airline industry. Such arguments are stale, ineffective and run the risk of creating an image of a whining sector. Unfortunately – and to the airlines’ defence - current and proposed European and international legislation on reduction of the industry’s carbon footprint fall well short of addressing other actors in the aviation value chain. Obviously, this needs to be amended so that the aviation industry as a whole is made accountable for its own future. As customers, airlines will have to leverage their presence and brands to ensure that their providers and suppliers are committed to the same long term cause.
It is encouraging to see that many airlines today take sustainability very seriously. They are consistently reinventing themselves and including ecological measures, in-house climate management, decreasing of their carbon footprint, protection of endangered species and facilitating humanitarian aid in their day-to-day operations. There are ample examples in the market of airlines using alternative and bio (degradable) fuel, new technology, increasing the efficiency of ground- and flight operations and optimal use of fleet, infrastructure and production facilities. They invest billions per year in new and more sustainable aircraft, engines and infrastructure. In parallel, technological developments such as electric and battery-powered flight are gaining momentum.
It is therefore high time that the airline industry is clear about its ambitions and sets targets on developing the first carbon neutral airline in the world. Society has the right to expect such leadership from a market sector that regards itself as innovative, relevant and essential at global level. The marketability of such an initiative would exceed anything in the industry today. One would expect customers, shareholders and investors to be lining up to be part of this development. The proposition would also have the potential of attracting investors who so far have avoided aviation all together, simply because it did not fit their requirements of sustainability, innovation or ecological responsibility and societal engagement.
Safety of operations and certification are – and always have been - key to the industry’s track record and credibility. Therefore, it goes without saying that any new developments regarding aviation operations would have to go through the same levels of scrutiny which have brought the industry to the safety levels it is at today. However, such requirements should not discourage any leadership initiatives upfront which attempt to create an airline which can live up to the global environmental challenges of the future.
If the airline industry takes itself seriously for the decades to come, it is up to that same industry to initiate game changers which enable it to maintain the creation of societal value, fulfilling its role as contributor to global well-being, connecting of peoples and regions, and leveraging its potential.
Creating the first carbon neutral airline in the world is a good starting point.
Utopia? I don’t believe so.