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Climate Change Villain: Can the Travel Industry Avoid a Bad Reputation?

Updated: Jul 12, 2019

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As scientists take on a more dire tone around climate change, it's becoming harder to sugarcoat the role the travel industry has in the larger environmental picture. When U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced the Green New Deal earlier this year, co-sponsored by 89 Democratic colleagues, much of the criticism of it centered on the legislation's call to overhaul the nation's infrastructure, claiming the bill seeks to end air travel altogether. While the stimulus package itself made no mention of ending air travel, it was a clear sign that travel is front and center in the climate change debate.

The European Union, meanwhile, aims for carbon neutrality by 2050. At the International Air Transport Association's Annual General Meeting in Seoul last month, EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc said aviation emissions were twice as high today as they were in the 1990s. "We cannot continue to generate such high costs from aviation or indeed any other transport mode," she said. "We owe this to our planet and to future generations."

Airline executives said there already is talk in Europe of eliminating some short-haul flights—between Paris and Brussels, for example—that have plentiful options by rail. Lufthansa chairman and CEO Carsten Spohr also raised a few eyebrows when he said some ultra-low-cost carriers, offering short-haul flights for as little as 10 euros per segment, were being "environmentally irresponsible because we basically shouldn't be taking advantage of the environment for that little money."

Regulations aside, travel industry executives increasingly are becoming aware of their own image, not wanting to be known primarily as polluters. SAS CEO Rickard Gustafson, speaking on a sustainability panel hosted by Shell Aviation, said he saw a "real and tangible" image impact from the environmental perception of aviation. Over the previous six months, domestic aviation in Sweden had dropped 5 percent, presumably meaning year over year. And that did not just account for leisure travel. "The stigma against aviation has become so impactful that most corporates—they are changing their travel policies and dictating their policies so if there is a train alternative that will take three-and-a-half hours longer than the air service, they use rail service," Gustafson said.

On the same panel, SATS president and CEO Alex Hungate said he was concerned the industry could "end up with a situation like the tobacco industry, where we can't attract talent because we're a pariah industry." While Hungate was talking about airlines, it's not a stretch to carry his comments over to corporate managed travel programs, to imagine an employee base less willing to travel if employees equated travel with environmental harm.

And though hotels are not under the same regulatory spotlight as airlines, they are not exempt from the scrutiny, either. Bjorn Hanson, industry consultant and adjunct professor at the NYU School of Professional Studies Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality, said surveys have shown that about 20 percent of travelers view environmental issues in lodging as "very important." While that might not sound like an overwhelming percentage, that represents travelers who might alter travel plans if they have environmental concerns about properties. "Corporations and organizations that sponsor events and hold them in hotels might have their personal objectives or corporate objectives," Hanson said, but they also want to avoid being called out by meeting attendees for using, for instance, plastic name badge holders.

The budding business of environmentalism awards also is a form of peer pressure on both travel suppliers and travel buyers, as some simply don't want to be left out of the lovefest, Hanson said.

Moving from Measurement to Action

Many travel buyers have been gathering data on their programs' carbon footprints for years, though the degree to which that data is used has been shifting.

American Express Global Business Travel VP of risk and compliance Michelle Dyer said the travel management company has been refreshing its corporate social responsibility programs since acquiring HRG and that an increasing number of clients ask for data on greenhouse emissions from business travel. They also request consulting services to determine how to get those numbers under control through policies and other methods. "Is it as strong as cost in informing travel policies?" Dyer wondered. "Probably not yet, but it's an influencer, something they are taking into consideration."

Margaret Brady, now a travel consultant, was one of the pioneers in measuring travel program emissions when she managed travel for A.T. Kearney more than a decade ago. The company set up a data warehouse to measure its footprint and set tangible goals for carbon reductions. As more companies look to set up similar programs, Brady said they must base sustainability claims on data and metrics, not just on vague sustainability designations by suppliers of "gold status" or such. Air travel emissions are easier to measure. TMCs often provide such data in ranges. While at A.T. Kearney, Brady worked with a third party that could measure emissions based on actual miles.

Estee Lauder Cos. executive director Jami Stapelmann works across more than 40 brands and partners closely with the organization's environmental and safety groups. She gets reporting from both airlines and car rental suppliers. One opportunity that she noticed to make overall reductions is one-night trips, she said. "There's a pop-up when booking through the online booking tool and agency, asking, ‘Could this be an online meeting or handled through Skype or Zoom?'" Stapelmann said. "Unlike the olden days, when you had to go, this is using technology to help you manage your business better, budget better and your health and well-being better."

At the IATA meeting, airline executives said that consumer buy-in on the carbon offsets they offer remains low, partly because they are not widely understood. Shell New Energies VP Duncan van Bergen said his company surveyed 4,000 people across Western Europe and while half would pay a small amount to offset flight emissions, "60 percent said they didn't feel they understood the part of the conversation well enough to be making an informed choice about participating in an airline program or some other program." Some airlines are pushing awareness. For the month of June, for example, JetBlue paid off all passengers' carbon offsets to better educate them, CEO Robin Hayes said. Gustafson said SAS started a program to offer the offsets for free to all who enroll in its frequent-flier program. "We felt that we needed to demonstrate that we really take this seriously and show that we are prepared to take some costs to this here and now, even in an extremely competitive landscape," he said.

That also could translate to deeper discussions between buyers and their airline partners on carbon offsets. Years ago, Brady tried to include offsets in negotiations with airlines and met resistance, but she said some buyers are finding success on that front. For example, Delta and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, have partnered to offset the emissions associated with the foundation's business travel on the carrier. Over the past four years, this has totaled almost 12,000 metric tons of carbon emission offsets and "a stronger engagement between the foundation's travelers and Delta Airlines," said foundation deputy director of global mobility and travel Pam Massey.

At the June CAPA Centre for Airline CEOs Summit, Travelport global head of new distribution Ian Heywood said the New Distribution Capability standards also will open the door for carbon offsets to become part of bundled fares.

In the meantime, Brady said: "You have to determine what the goal is, what your path is and what the time line is to achieving that goal. Some companies might just measure and pay [for offsets] internally, but we wanted the business units [at A.T. Kearney] to be engaged in the efforts."

Hotels are more difficult to assess than airlines. Attempts to develop universal green scales to measure them have not caught on, Hanson said. Even so, the Global Business Travel Association's RFP template addresses water, energy and waste production. "Organizations are requesting it as part of the RFP, but if you follow up and ask whether organizations have ever changed their mind with the environmental statement of Hotel A versus Hotel B, you didn't get yeses," Hanson said. "Putting pressure on them to be more environmentally friendly is the goal, more than [using it] to calculate something to choose one hotel over another."

Organizations also can designate which hotels are environmentally friendly in booking tools, basing it on information like LEED building certification, Brady said, and for meetings, sustainability also can mean locally sourced food. Amex GBT's Dyer added: "People are looking to engage with the local communities and do initiatives, such as partnering with local charities. On the environmental side, they're looking to reduce waste—eliminate printed materials, single-use plastics and food waste—as well as the greenhouse gas reporting that would go on with those meetings."

Stapelmann said Estee Lauder's sustainability requests when sourcing meetings include glass water bottles rather than plastic. Some of the company's more green-focused brands ask as many as six pages of questions on sustainability regarding meetings.

The commitment to reducing business travel emissions varies by company type, Brady said. For consultancies and similar businesses for which business travel makes up the vast majority of its carbon footprint, reducing travel emissions will be more of a focus than for a manufacturing company, which would concentrate on the carbon footprint of its regular business processes.

Supplier Progress

Airline executives spoke on a common theme at the IATA meeting: While airlines need to continue to reduce their carbon footprints, they also need to better communicate those efforts to the traveling public. "We have not properly relayed to the public the good work that we are doing," Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker said. "There are strides already being made and a lot of misinformation being given. It is easy to blame aviation without realizing there are other modes of travel that are bigger pollutants."

The United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization in 2016 adopted the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, which requires annual CO2 reporting from all airlines as of this year. The long-term plan is to reduce CO2 emission levels by the year 2050 to half of what they were in 2005. In addition to cutting emissions, the scheme also includes offset requirements that begin in 2021 for nations that have agreed to be in its pilot phase, including the U.S., Canada and much of Europe. Steps toward that measure have included aircraft types that burn less fuel, lighter seats that reduce an aircraft's weight and biofuels that emit less carbon. Airlines also are adding pre-order meals to reduce food waste and reducing single-use plastics, which have become a focus in recent months since a whale was found dead in Italy with 48 pounds of plastic in its stomach.

United Airlines director of environmental policy, programs and sustainability Maria Race said the carrier is looking to its own employee base for more ideas. "We're going through training this year with every flight attendant, and we've had a lot of great suggestions for how you eliminate food waste and some of these plastics," she said. "They're living it every day, so it's really important for us to work with people who might have some fantastic ideas and [to] get out of the echo chamber."

Airline executives, however, said governments play just as crucial a role in helping to reduce emissions as do the airlines themselves. The airline executives encouraged travel buyer organizations to throw their weight behind such policy changes. Biofuels, for example, need the support of governments in R&D to be successful, IATA director general and CEO Alexandre de Juniac said.

Air traffic control modernization plays a critical role, as it lets airlines take more direct paths to destinations and spend less time in holding patterns, wasting fuel. "Governments are keen to talk about emissions and CO2 issues, but they are doing very little investment in improving air traffic management," Al Baker said. "They are still operating the airspace as if we were three decades behind."

Hotels are doing their own work, Hanson said. This includes offering bonuses to guests for reduced housekeeping services; replacing tubs with shower units; putting forth designs without wall-to-wall carpeting, which requires less energy for vacuuming; and using more environmentally friendly cleaning suppliers.

A challenge, however, is that hotels, by design, must pursue certain practices that are not ecological, Hanson said. HVAC use always will be high because guests do not want to enter hot or cold rooms. Hot water systems must be designed for peak use. Lighting in public areas has to be on whether one or 100 guests are in the hotel. And even if guests are willing to forego housekeeping during their stays, they would never use the same linens as previous guests.

That circles back to the original conundrum: Travel with zero environmental impact is impossible. When the industry works together to mitigate that as much as possible, however, it also can emphasize the higher purpose of travel, Dyer said. "Travel is important; it helps band society's fabrics together, especially business travel, as no one is just doing it for their own entertainment. We need to do it for a purpose, and we need to think about how we can be part of the collective leadership around sustainability."

In a recent column in BTN sister brand Business Travel iQ, AMM Consulting senior partner Ole Mortensen said travel buyers should consider the following to reduce business travel-related pollution:

Look for opportunities to replace physical conferences with virtual conferences. One Danish medical company recently made its commercial strategy summit completely virtual. More than 350 colleagues across the globe participated in virtual workshops and live sessions.Increase use of virtual technology to replace internal meetings.Pay offsets and advocate that travel taxes be used for funds that finance science and sustainability projects like protecting rain forests and developing solar energy.

M. Baker

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