Flights that don’t cost the earth

April Waterston details how airlines are striving to minimise their environmental impact and discovers how agents can help clients to travel as sustainably as possible

From discovering the sweet rasgulla desert in Maharashtra to embracing fjord winds in Québec, to dodging ornate paper lanterns rowing across the Thu Bon river in Hoi An, very few of my most coveted travel experiences would have been possible without air travel.

Paradoxically, whilst flying has long been flagged as a major contributor to climate change, it is also the key to exploring our wonderful planet.

Travel is what allows us to become global citizens. By travelling we feel more engaged with international politics, more aware of hardships people face around the world, and more appreciative of the natural beauty and fragile ecosystems we so desperately need to protect.
However, reducing the carbon footprint and overall environmental impact of aviation remains a critical concern.

The aviation industry is widely reported as contributing anywhere between 2-2.5% of total carbon emissions globally, that’s more pollution than most countries.

Airlines know they need to up their game to help us all travel in a greener way – and it’s a task they are all, for the most part, taking very seriously.

“We’re embracing a new goal to be 100% green by 2050 by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions,” said Scott Kirby, Chief Executive Officer, United Airlines. “We’ll get there not with flashy, empty gestures, but by taking the harder, better path of actually reducing the emissions from flying.”

Best foot forward

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The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has set a goal to achieve net zero carbon emissions across the industry by 2050. This pledge brings air transport in line with the objectives of the Paris agreement to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

“Flying sustainably and cutting CO2 emissions is a top priority. The aviation sector is working to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 and travellers want to be more aware of their carbon footprint,” said Frederic Leger, IATA’s Senior Vice President for Commercial Products & Services.
Key to this is the development of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). SAF is a liquid fuel made from waste oils, fats, non-food crops and municipal waste.

It reduces CO2 emissions by up to 80% compared to standard fuels. Whilst there’s still progress to be made with SAF production – currently there is nowhere near enough available to fuel the whole industry, and what is available costs up to six times more than traditional fuel – IATA estimates that over 300 million litres were used in 2022. With adequate expansion in production, IATA believes it will be feasible to replace almost all fossil jet fuel with SAF over the coming decades.

Agents can up their sustainability credentials by championing airlines that are supporting this. For example, the International Airlines Group (IAG) – the parent company of airlines such as British Airways, Aer Lingus, Iberia and Veuling – has promised to invest $400 million in the development of SAF. In April 2021, IAG became the first European airline group to commit to powering 10% of all flights with sustainable aviation fuel by 2030.

In early 2023, Emirates operated its first milestone demonstration flight on a Boeing 777-300ER, powering one of its engines with 100% SAF.

And United Airlines has partnered on a new joint venture called Blue Blade Energy to develop and then commercialise a novel SAF technology that uses ethanol as its feedstock. The offtake agreement could provide for enough SAF to fly more than 50,000 flights annually between United’s hub airports in Chicago and Denver.

Four ways agents can help

Pack light: Reducing weight onboard is a top priority for airlines, as ultimately that is how they can limit the amount of fuel needed for each flight.

Encouraging clients to minimise luggage weight is an easy way to promote more sustainable travel. Finnair has calculated that if each passenger were to reduce luggage weight by 5kg, the total reduction could save almost 17,000 tons of CO2

Meal prep: Getting clients to pre-order meals will make a huge difference in terms of food wastage. IATA research has shown the average passenger generates 1.43kg of cabin waste per flight, with 20% of this untouched food and drink.

Pre-ordering meals means airlines can load the exact amount of food that they need, reducing waste and ultimately limiting the amount of single-use plastics.

Cathay Pacific Catering Services (CPCS) has joined a pilot scheme for food waste collection which will see it transformed into energy and compost, while Japan Airlines has introduced the option to skip its inflight meal service in order to reduce food waste.

Normalise offsetting: After carbon reduction methods reach their limit, offsetting carbon can mitigate the remaining impacts. Most airlines now offer the option for passengers to offset their CO2 emissions by funding projects that work to reduce greenhouse gases by planting new trees or increasing the energy efficiency of modes of transport.

Choose greener aircraft: Agents can champion airlines with a new, fuel-efficient fleet. The latest aircraft models are already miles ahead in fuel efficiency. For example, airBaltic is increasing its fleet of Airbus A220-300 aircraft, one of the greenest commercial aircraft in the skies.

The airline will add eight aircraft to its 39-strong fleet in 2023.

For clients wanting to know which flights would be most sustainable, agents can log on to IATA CO2 Connect and calculate the footprint of different flight options.

Airlines leading the way

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Delta: Delta has partnered with a Mexican apparel brand called Someone Somewhere to create greener amenity kits for its premium Delta One cabin. Working with the Certified B Corporation has created jobs for more than 250 people in five of Mexico’s most vulnerable states

Alaska Airlines: Alaska Airlines has recently become the first U.S. airline to remove all plastic cups onboard, eliminating more than 55 million plastic cups annually.

Finnair has removed its inflight retail service. “Onboard and pre-order shopping has become a less important service among our customers,” explained Valtteri Helve, Head of Product Offering at Finnair.

“The decision is part of our goal to reduce the overall weight of the aircraft,” added Helve. “It is time to take the next step and discontinue it worldwide.”

Iberia: Iberia has launched CO2labora, which enables passengers to offset their CO2 emissions through two certified climate projects: one in Guatemala and one in Peru.

Aer Lingus: Aer Lingus has replaced plastic with birchwood cutlery, reducing almost 23 tonnes of single-use plastics per year. It also introduced a digital alternative to newspapers and magazines