How sustainable aviation is changing traveler and brand behavior

Raul Mellado Ortiz /

For the month of June 2022, AeroTime is directing a spotlight on sustainability in aviation.

Perhaps a little over 10 years ago, offsetting carbon emissions was a bonus offered by travel brands. Today, however, sustainability is at the forefront of the core values of most aviation brands, a long way from the days when corporate and customer offsetting programs were merely an added feature. 

Sustainable branding is now integral to a company’s success. Consumers want to know that the brand they patronize and support has a purpose beyond simply turning a profit. This can be seen across all sectors, particularly aviation, an industry considered to be responsible for 2.5% of global CO2 emissions. 

But what do we mean when we talk about sustainable aviation? And how did the term come about? And most interestingly, how is the industry’s commitment to achieve net zero emissions altering traveler and brand behavior? AeroTime investigates.

When did sustainability become a considered practice?

While ‘carbon footprint’ may seem like it’s been a part of our collective lexicon for some time now, the term was only coined in the 1990s and was derived from the ecological footprint concept.

Ecological footprint is a method promoted by the Global Footprint Network to measure human demand on natural capital. In other words, it measures the quantity of nature it takes to support people or an economy.

Graph credit: Our World in Data

It’s important to know that Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) and aviation sustainability are not merely trending marketing buzzwords conceived during the last decade. 

A chart and study created by Our World in Data shows that from 1940-2018, global aviation, which includes both passenger and freight sectors, has emitted an estimated 1.04 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2).

The figures are alarming enough that in October 2021 at the 77th IATA Annual General Meeting in Boston, IATA member airlines passed a resolution to commit to achieving net-zero carbon emissions from their operations by 2050. 

More than just CO2

The study also showed that aviation’s contribution towards global warming goes beyond the emission of CO2. 

“As well as emitting CO2 from burning fuel, planes affect the concentration of other gases and pollutants in the atmosphere. They result in a short-term increase, but long-term decrease in ozone (O3); a decrease in methane (CH4); emissions of water vapor; soot; sulfur aerosols; and water contrails,” the study states. 

A study conducted by Science Direct in 2021 titled ‘The contribution of global aviation to anthropogenic climate forcing for 2000 to 2018’ shows that when all the above is combined and quantified, aviation accounts for approximately 3.5% of effective radiative forcing – or 3.5% of global warming. 

Image credit: Science Direct (The contribution of global aviation to anthropogenic climate forcing for 2000 to 2018)

Social reaction 

Throughout the years, protest action against flying has been seen around the world. But the biggest-ever demonstration was made in response to the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit when then-16-year-old Greta Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic to attend the summit to avoid carbon-intensive flying.

The Swiss student and environmental activist famously confronted world leaders at the 2019 summit, saying that they had “stolen” her dreams and childhood (and that of the younger generation) by not taking sufficient steps against climate change

Flight Shame

In 2018, Thunberg also helped popularize the flygskam or the ‘Flight Shame’ movement. Originating in Sweden, it is an anti-flying social movement that aims to discourage people from flying to help thwart climate change.

The movement also resulted in the word tågskryt, a Swedish word that literally translates to ‘Train brag’. People were encouraged to take the train rather than commercial flights and were urged to share their train journeys on social media. 

Perhaps the most popular individual to be flight-shamed was Hollywood actor Leonadro di Caprio. Di Caprio, who is also known for his environmental activism, was called an “Eco-hypocrite” when he infamously took an 8,000-mile trans-Atlantic flight in a private jet to accept an environmental award in 2016.

In the same year, DiCaprio co-produced and starred in a climate change documentary in which he explored the effects of global warming and tackled climate change denial.

For the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Scotland, Di Caprio escaped the “Eco-hypocrite” tag when he arrived via a commercial flight

Hello, trains. Goodbye, planes.

Soon after the ‘Flight shame’ movement began, train travel in Sweden took off, while domestic commercial flying reduced. In 2019, passenger numbers at Sweden’s airports decreased by 5% compared to the previous year.

In Germany, the same pattern could be seen as passenger numbers on domestic flights had steadily dropped by the end of 2019. 

In 2019, investment banking firm UBS conducted a survey of more than 6,000 people in the US, Germany, France and the UK. The survey found that 21% had reduced the number of flights they had taken during the last year. 

The movement had quite an impact on the aviation industry, so much so that in his opening remarks at the 2019 Winds of Change Americas event in Chicago, IATA Director General and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac said that the “rise of anti-aviation sentiment over these last months” and environmental sustainability were “the greatest challenge” to the aviation industry. 

In April 2022, the French government became the first government to ban short-haul domestic flights in an attempt to reduce the country’s carbon emissions from plane travel.

Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF)

In an effort to greatly reduce the aviation industry’s carbon footprint, airlines across the globe have committed to using sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) made from ecological sources that conserve environmental balance.

According to a sustainable aviation fuel development report by IATA, over 370,000 flights using SAF have taken off since 2016, and more than 45 airlines now have experience flying with SAF. 

In September 2021, British Airways made a momentous breakthrough when it operated its first ever passenger flight from London to Glasgow using recycled cooking oil. In December 2021, Qantas announced that for its regular services out of London, it will use SAF purchased from bp. A few months later in March 2022, the Australian flag carrier signed an SAF deal with US biofuels company Aemetis to use blended SAF for Qantas flights from Los Angeles and San Francisco starting in 2025.

Most airlines that operate with SAF use a blended formula, so aviation companies are currently working to develop technology to operate flights using 100% SAF. In December 2021, United Airlines made history by operating the first passenger flight from Chicago to Washington, D.C using 100% SAF in one of the aircraft’s engines. In early 2022, engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney successfully tested a GTF Advantage engine with 100% SAF. 

These are just a few examples of how airlines and aviation companies are taking the vital steps towards achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

The role of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic struck shortly after the flight shaming movement came to prominence. 

By April 2020, airlines worldwide had cut up to 95% of trips. Flight reductions were achieved at an unprecedented speed.

Travel came to a standstill and COVID-19 seemed to be bringing about environmental change at a fast pace. The Ganges (Ganga) River in India showed improvement in its water quality after just 10 days of the travel lockdown. 

In Southeast Asia, the level of harmful airborne particles caused by traffic and energy production reduced by 40% during lockdown. An analysis in noise pollution in Dublin saw that the noise level reduced considerably during the COVID-19 travel lockdown period.

In 2020, shortly after the pandemic struck, Swedish singer-songwriter Staffan Lindberg was quoted as saying: “This coronavirus thing is like a rehearsal for being more sustainable in the future. I hope so.”

It was estimated that the travel lockdowns enforced during COVID-19 could have helped global temperature to decrease by at least 0.08°Celsius by 2050. 

While carbon emissions significantly decreased during the pandemic, this is nothing new. In fact, according to a BBC Future Planet article about how coronavirus has helped the environment published in April 2020, “History tells us that when emissions have fallen sharply in the past, as they do after recessions, there’s often a rocketing rebound that wipes out any short-term cut in emissions.”

So, as aviation continues to recover, it’s clear that the industry needs to continue to invest in sustainable innovation, and come up with greener solutions. 

What people want 

In May 2020, global data provider OAG surveyed more than 2,000 travelers regarding sustainability issues. The survey found that 56% of all travelers and 50% of business travelers would consider switching their preferred airline if there were “more environmentally friendly options available”. Interestingly, that number was even higher for millennials (68%).

OAG also found that 50% of travelers would be willing to take a greener mode of transportation even if it took longer than the typical flight.

The demand for sustainable products, not just in aviation but the overall economic market, has encouraged brands to go to great lengths to prove that they take climate action seriously. However, plenty of brands have since been accused of ‘greenwashing’, a term which means the practice of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company or organization’s products or services are more environmentally sound

In May 2022, the aviation industry faced its first lawsuit to challenge airline industry greenwashing. Dutch flag carrier KLM is facing legal action filed by environmental groups for misleading advertisements that promote the sustainability of flying. 

“KLM’s marketing misleads consumers into believing that its flights won’t worsen the climate emergency. But this is a myth,” a campaigner at Fossielvrij NL Hiske Arts said in a statement released by ClientEarth.

“We’re going to court to demand KLM tells the truth about its fossil-fuel dependent product. Unchecked flying is one of the fastest ways to heat up the planet. Customers need to be informed and protected from claims that suggest it is not.”

What people get

The surveys speak loud and clear. Travelers claim they are willing to pay more and travel longer hours if it means creating a lower environmental impact. But will consumers actually put their money where their mouth is?

One example is carbon offsetting, the process of reducing the impact of carbon emissions by participating in schemes designed to make equivalent reductions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 

A 2022 evidence-based study into traveler’s willingness to pay for carbon dioxide offsets seems to suggest an unwillingness or reluctance to participate in this particular green solution. The observational field study involving a final sample of 63,520 bookings made with a European airline found that passengers were largely unwilling to offset their flights, as just 4.46% of bookings included the compensation. 

“Our results raise skepticism about the degree to which voluntary offsetting works from a consumer perspective. Quite obviously, our data allow the conclusion that adequately offsetting one’s own emissions does not seem a behavioral priority for most passengers,” the study concluded.

However, it is also worth noting that there are many factors, such as airfare costs, hotel rates, and rising inflation, that may impact customers’ willingness and ability to make more ethical choices. 

Future focus: a growing expectation for sustainable aviation 

Airlines and travel brands need to embrace a level of sustainability in order to appeal to an increasingly environmentally aware customer base. There is a growing expectation for sustainability to continue to become an integrated part of aviation strategy as we move into the future. 

While economic recessions and a global health crisis may have temporarily paused people’s travel activities, international tourism is projected to come back even stronger post-pandemic.

There are plenty of ‘new normals’ when it comes to post-pandemic travel. Travelers are becoming more environmentally conscious and are leaning towards brands that are transparent and honest about their sustainability claims.

If we take a look at aviation, we can see brands and organizations working together to achieve a common goal of reducing the environmental impact created by flying.  

In America, US airlines (Amazon Air, Alaska Airlines, JetBlue (JBLU), and United Airlines) have joined forces to boost production of SAF, reduce its price, and improve SAF technological innovation. 

In Europe, four airlines (AirFrance-KLM, Bauhaus Luftfahrt, Deutsche Post DHL Group, easyJet,) have teamed up with environmental groups to support a European Union drive to boost sustainable aviation fuels.  

Corporate giants like Rolls-Royce and Shell have signed a memorandum of understanding to progress the adoption of SAF.

Whether driven by consumers or in response to an alarming increase in the aviation sector’s contribution to CO2 emissions – or maybe both, it’s encouraging to see alliances formed by competing brands who are working together in an effort to fly in greener skies.


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