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What COVID-19 Can Teach the Airline Industry About Sustainability

Airlines clearly have a lot on their plates at the moment,
but putting a renewed focus on sustainability could serve as a rare bit of positivity for the industry.

This content was created collaboratively by Publicis Sapient and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.

The humanitarian and economic impact of COVID-19 has been unprecedented. While the world waits in shut-down, there is one silver lining to the pandemic: cleaner air, bluer skies, and less pollution.

Prior to COVID, the airline industry was beginning to actively steer into the wind of the sustainability debate. This was for good reason: As the European Union has noted, “If global aviation was a country, it would rank in the top 10 for greenhouse gas emissions.”

Airlines have historically had a mixed relationship with sustainability, given their reliance on fuel and the high cost of fleet upgrades. But heading into 2020 before the pandemic unfolded, the industry began to demonstrate leadership and boldly take action toward improving their carbon emissions. As recently as January 2020, JetBlue was expanding its offsetting programs and had plans to be the first carbon-neutral carrier in the U.S., starting in July 2020. Meanwhile, in February of this year, Delta Air Lines announced that it would commit $1 billion over the next 10 years to become the first carbon neutral airline globally.

Airlines also had begun to bring new aircraft online that reduced their carbon per passenger and increased overall fuel-efficiency. Pre-COVID-19, American Airlines had a relatively young fleet, with an average aircraft age of 11 years, while Delta’s fleet had an average age of 15 years.

The role of plastics in air travel was also gaining critical attention. Etihad Airways pledged to reduce its single-use plastic usage by 80 percent by the end of 2022, while Qantas put a plan in place to eliminate 75 percent of the airline’s waste by the end of 2021.

The discussion around sustainability in travel has been led by the growing influence — and rising income — of millennial and Gen Z travelers, who say this issue is especially important to them. In a recent Air Travel Sustainability survey monkey poll from Publicis Sapient, which was conducted in April 2020, 75 percent of respondents were ages 44 and younger, some 58 percent said they are thinking more about the environment and sustainability than now before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Survey results

Survey was conducted via Survey Monkey and shared via social media and email. There were 464 total respondents. Data in this article does not represent weighted scores.

The New Reality Under COVID-19

The discussion around the airline industry and its impact on climate change has died down as the COVID-19 crisis has brought it to its knees. In mid-April, The International Air Transport Association (IATA) released an updated analysis showing that the COVID-19 crisis will see airline passenger revenues drop by $314 billion in 2020 — a 55 percent decline compared to 2019. As international borders have closed and airlines have grounded their flights, the priorities of airlines have urgently shifted from sustainability to securing funding, protecting jobs, keeping operations running, and exploring their new normal survival strategies.

While the conversation around airlines’ contribution to climate change has quieted, at least for the moment, one benefit of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the dramatic decrease in air pollution and the use of fossil fuels, as fewer people are driving, factories decrease production, and many airlines remain grounded. According to a report from the International Energy Agency, global greenhouse gas emissions are expected to plummet nearly eight percent in 2020 — the largest drop ever recorded. We’re seeing proof in images shared across social media and news stories that show clear skies in Los Angeles, New Delhi, Jakarta, and Milan.

But many experts agree that this good news is temporary: Unless there are real changes made to clean energy policies, emissions will likely return to their higher levels once the pandemic subsides and the global lockdowns conclude. As Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency explained to the New York Times, “The only way to sustainably reduce emissions is not through painful lockdowns, but by putting the right energy and climate policies in place.”

This risk is heightened when considering today’s financial and political realities. While airlines and other corporations fight to survive and save jobs, investments in fuel-efficient aircraft and carbon offsets move much further down the list of priorities, especially as the price of oil has plunged.

A Preview of What Might Come for Airlines and Climate Change

Some view the grounding of flights and limitations in cross-border travel as a glimpse into what the future of flying could look like for airlines, unless serious changes are made to reduce the impact of climate change. According to Jagdish Ghanshani, Managing Partner, Global Client Partner, Travel & Hospitality, North America at Publicis Sapient, “The reality is, COVID-19 may be serving almost as a dry run for what could come. Unless the industry recovers with sustainability at the forefront, it is entirely possible that climate change will cause a similar but longer-lasting disruption to global air travel.”

Early warning signs of what the airline industry could face have emerged over the last few years, with severe inclement weather, tropical storms, and massive wildfires causing a rise in flight disruptions. In December 2019, Bloomberg reported that “weather-related airline delays have been tracking upward for four years.” Environmental conditions have already become a regular part of airline earnings calls, and this past June, “United Airlines Holdings Inc.’s Denver hub registered as many disruptive storms as it had for the entire previous summer.” The costs add up: “In 2018, the average cost of aircraft block (taxi plus airborne) time for U.S. passenger airlines was $74.20 per minute,” according to trade group Airlines for America.

A Call to Action for Airlines

COVID-19 should serve as a reminder and call to action for the airline industry. Though issues like safety, cleanliness, and hygiene will likely be top of mind for passengers in the short term, climate change is not going away. In Publicis Sapient’s survey, 66 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to purchase from an airline that has increased its sustainability efforts, and 73 percent said they are paying attention to brands that are making a positive impact during the pandemic.

“Airlines need to be proactive about dealing with their impact on greenhouse gas emissions head-on, or they will have to react to circumstances beyond their control in similar ways they are having to now.”
Jagdish Ghanshani
Jagdish Ghanshani, Managing Partner, Global Client Partner, Travel & Hospitality, North America

Airlines that restart their operations with sustainability at the forefront of their brand will have a competitive advantage with consumers. “Airlines need to be proactive about dealing with their impact on greenhouse gas emissions head-on, or they will have to react to circumstances beyond their control in similar ways they are having to now,” said Jagdish Ghanshani, Managing Partner, Global Client Partner, Travel & Hospitality, North America at Publicis Sapient.

Choi recommends that airlines provide passengers with transparency about the carbon footprint of their flights and give them new merchandising options, such as carbon offsets, to allow travelers with greater options to reduce the environmental impact of their trip. According to the Publicis Sapient survey, 48 percent of respondents would be willing to pay an additional fee when booking their flight to purchase a carbon offset credit. And though fuel is cheap at the moment, airlines should also continue to partner with aircraft manufacturers as they transition to fuel efficient aircrafts once business is back up and running.

Right now — and in a post-COVID-19 world — brands that are leaders in sustainability efforts are in a unique position to gain consumer trust. This is especially important at a time when consumers are increasingly skeptical of big businesses that have received government bailout support. In a Fortune/SurveyMonkey poll conducted during March 2020, only 32 percent of Americans said they think airlines deserve federal assistance in response to the economic fallout from the coronavirus outbreak.

In addition to rising skepticism of airlines due to the government bailout, consumers have all but stopped air travel and are hesitant to begin again anytime soon, no matter how safe it’s deemed to be. According to the Publicis Sapient survey, only 40 percent of respondents expect to be comfortable purchasing air travel less than six months from when it is determined safe to travel.

Lately, news headlines have been filled with grim proclamations about the future of the airline industry as consumers have halted their travel plans. Putting a renewed focus on sustainability could serve as a rare bit of positivity for the sector and show that the industry is looking ahead to long-term survival.

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