In the not-too-distant past, sustainability was likely a blip on most air travelers’ radar screen. But fast-forward to today, and for many, it’s a major consideration when booking flights — one that’s driving new initiatives undertaken by airlines and travel advisors alike.
“Sustainability has become increasingly important to air travelers, especially within the past few years following the pandemic,” notes travel advisor Elaina Vieira, co-founder of Merced, California-based Mind Over Matter Travel. “People caught a glimpse of the positive effect decreased travel had on the environment and planet. While most have continued their pre-pandemic travel routines, many aim to be more conscious of the environmental impact of air travel and seek to offset it where possible.”
Kristin Winkaffe, CEO of Winkaffe Global Travel, an independent McCabe World Travel affiliate based in Columbus, agrees. She says regulatory and industry initiatives are also fueling consumers’ awareness of sustainable air travel options, in turn upping their expectations that airlines demonstrate their commitment to sustainability. That sustainable air travel often goes hand-in-hand with ever-more-popular “authentic, immersive, responsible travel experiences” is moving the needle as well, Winkaffe observes.
Travel advisors also credit the effectiveness of social media for the high priority being placed on sustainability in air travel. Their rationale here: The more individuals share their eco-friendly travel experiences and decisions on social media platforms, the more others are inspired to prioritize sustainability when planning trips and to demand that companies, especially airlines, show their dedication to environmental preservation.
Meanwhile, a “Clean Sky” survey conducted in 2021 by global consultancy McKinsey & Company indicates that of 5,500 travelers from 13 nations worldwide, 40 percent are willing to pay at least two percent more ($20+ per $1,000 fare) for a carbon-neutral flight than for one that is not carbon neutral. Aircraft emissions are now the top concern of respondents in 11 countries represented in the survey, up from four in a previous survey executed by McKinsey in 2019. More than half of individuals polled said that they are “really concerned” about climate change, and that aviation should become carbon neutral in the future.
Sustainability in Materials
Airlines have begun to acknowledge travelers’ concerns about their flights’ carbon footprint and their desire to at least minimize it. For example, United Airlines customers can see an estimate of each flight’s carbon footprint on its website and app. However, this is just one part of a more all-encompassing effort by the carrier.
”Notable is the development of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), alternatives to conventional jet fuel that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared to regular jet fuel. SAFs are produced from used cooking oil and agricultural waste and, in the future, could be made from household trash or forest waste. United has invested in more than three billion gallons of SAF, reportedly the most of any airline in the world. The carrier has struck deals with Pleasanton, California-based Fulcrum BioEnergy and Boston-based World Energy to increase the amount of SAFs to which it has access.
United has also launched the United Airlines Ventures Sustainable Flight FundSM, an investment vehicle intended to support decarbonization-focused startups by accelerating the research, production, and technologies associated with SAF. The fund kicked off with more than $100 million in investments from United and its inaugural partners — Air Canada, Boeing, GE Aerospace, JPMorgan Chase and Honeywell. In the past two years, United Airlines Ventures has invested in several SAF startups.
Also on the decarbonization front, aircraft manufacturers are moving toward the use of new lighter, thinner, more environmentally friendly composite materials and coatings. These materials and coatings make for lighter-weight airplanes that utilize less fuel to operate, in turn reducing emissions. One group at the University of Alabama is developing composites comprised of carbon fiber with embedded nanoparticles which, in addition to being lightweight, can be 3D printed — enabling them to be more sustainably produced in the exact shape and size needed rather than cut from a larger piece of material as is done with aluminum. United has already placed large orders for aircraft made with composite materials, which by some estimates can reduce their weight by up to 20 percent.
Sustainability in Flight — and Elsewhere
Not surprisingly, cries for sustainability in air travel extend to the in-flight experience—and beyond. Travel advisor Dawn Halpin, owner of Milwaukee-based Wandertopia Travel, has seen marked interest among travelers in further reducing their carbon footprint through in-flight meals prepared from locally sourced ingredients. “It’s not all clients, but it’s there, and it’s growing,” she says.
In addition to using as many locally obtained ingredients as possible — in some cases obtained through partnerships with local farms and other entities — airlines are satisfying passengers’ hunger for sustainable dining by providing more vegetarian and vegan options. Last year, United partnered with Los Angeles-based Impossible Foods to develop a vegan meal that is exclusive to the carrier and available on all domestic flights of 800 miles or more. Standard vegetarian options are offered on all flights that include meal service, with no pre-ordering required. Other vegetarian/vegan meals may be ordered ahead on certain flights.
Efforts to minimize food waste also abound. Some carriers compost leftover food, with a few repurposing the compost to create nutrient-rich soil that is then used to grow produce on their own farms. A handful of airlines harness artificial intelligence (AI) and/or image recognition to identify food consumption patterns and trends (for example, the least popular items, even at the flight segment level), then adjust menus and quantities accordingly. Giving travelers the opportunity to decline meal service in advance of flights ranks among other emerging waste reduction strategies.
Additionally, travel advisors and consultants alike foresee an increased consumer focus on, and desire for, other ways to make air travel more sustainable. “I (often) see the side of things where travelers…care, but (can) only take action if it is not too much of an inconvenience or expense for them,” Vieira says.
This is where customer engagement initiatives come in. According to a report by McKinsey & Company, “In the years ahead, more customers will be willing to pay for sustainability, particularly if airlines can engage them with interesting approaches, such as gamification in frequent flyer programs, opt-out rather than opt-in offsets, ‘green fast lanes’ for check-ins and security control, and customized emission-reduction offers. Decarbonization could become the standard to reach and maintain next-tier levels in loyalty programs.”
In what is reportedly a first among U.S. airlines, anyone who purchases a ticket on the United app or website can contribute to the United Airlines Ventures Sustainable Flight FundSM. The first 10,000 individuals to do so will each be rewarded with 500 UnitedPlus frequent flyer miles.
Sources agree that just as airlines are moving forward on the sustainability front, travel advisors must exercise best practices to, as Winkaffe puts it, “work to better the sustainability of clients’ trips and the travel industry as a whole.” These practices include:
• Staying informed of sustainable practices and options within the travel industry, as well as about environmental concerns and regulations that may impact their clients’ travel decisions. Among other strategies, Halpin finds following sustainability and travel influencers in the media to be extremely effective in gaining insight into clients’ evolving sustainability related sentiments.
• Offering sustainable options to clients, such as airlines with strong environmental commitments, carbon offset programs, and fuel-efficient aircraft. “Making these...readily available to ask about them, makes clients more likely to consider and choose sustainable travel alternatives” and establishes travel advisors as experts in this area, Winkaffe states.
• Partnering with responsible providers, among them airlines, to ensure that clients’ travel experiences are genuine and contribute positively to the communities and environments they visit.
• Educating clients about the benefits of sustainable travel, in terms of environmental impact and the overall travel experience. “By doing so,” Winkaffe concludes, “advisors can inspire clients to make more informed, responsible travel decisions, leading to a better…travel experience.”