Airline sustainability is frequently the subject of debate in the context of climate change. In one vein, activists anticipate the quadrupling of emissions by 2050, and in the other, industry experts claim the ability to accommodate growth without a significant increase in emissions. So where does this place the airline industry in the context of acting sustainably?
Evidence shows that airline companies are not only minimising impact, but proactively doing ‘more good’. Commitment to airline sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) is by no means new to the industry, with Lufthansa Group and British Airways introducing and reporting on initiatives since the 1980s, however; the extent to which such principles have become ingrained in the core strategy, is.
This evolving perspective is of course fuelled by multiple factors; with airline emissions contributing to 2% of overall CO2 emissions, the environment is the most obvious pressure. But social and economic pressures, such as; rising expectations of customers, existing and emerging regulations, and the need to remain competitive in an expanding market are also influencing it. Facilitating progress is the uptake of reporting tools, such as the ‘Global Reporting Initiative’ (GRI). Reporting is not yet commonplace in the Airline industry and subsequently, there is much inconsistency in the measures and indicators currently used. This makes comparison between airlines a challenging task. However, the introduction of GRI’s Level 4 Guidelines demonstrate a significant step forward in generating industry-wide standards.
Topical to this debate are the efforts made by the state carriers of the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) and Asia due to their tremendous growth and market share. Having reviewed a handful of GCC and Asian airlines, it is clear that not only are they complying to industry standards with regards to the environment, but they are willingly applying the philosophy to their core business strategy. Singapore Airlines (SIA), for example, has been reporting on sustainability and CSR for a number of years but more recently, have upped their game to produce a comprehensive G4 level GRI report which details innovative efforts towards achieving environmental and social goals. Emirates and Etihad both produce extensive sustainability reports, while other airlines like Qatar Airways and Oman Air publicise efforts through their websites and media channels.
Environment and energy consumption are interrelated, and investment into new and more efficient technologies is therefore used as a proxy for environmental stewardship. SIA and many GCC airlines boast a comparatively younger fleet than the industry standard of 12 years, with SIA’s fleet aging 6 – 7 years. Emirates, also with a young fleet, demonstrate innovation in design, with folding wingtips yielding a 3-4% increase in efficiency. Additionally, Emirates has sought solutions through logistical measures, with the development of partnerships for shorter and more efficient flight paths, Flex Tracks, and one-engine taxiing. Qatar Airways, now part of the Aviation Global Deal Group – an industry coalition that brings together industry stakeholders with the international NGO, The Climate Group – has committed to research into biofuels through its ‘Pearl Project’. Etihad Airways has recently been awarded the UAE Sustainability Award for its BIOjet project, an initiative in to Biofuels.
Aside from curbing emissions, airlines have philanthropic initiatives which cater to the growing concern of ecosystem stability. Emirates has created the Wolgan Valley Resort in Australia and the Dubai Conservation Reserve in an effort to protect native and endangered species. Additionally, in 2013, they launched ‘A Greener Tomorrow’ campaign, which allows the Company to support small and large scale environmental projects internationally, with beneficiaries including The Institute for Climate and Sustainability Cities. Qatar Airways has actively participated in the ‘National Green and Clean Qatar’ campaign in partnership with the Ministry of Municipality and Urban Planning, and Oman Air has established a paper recycling initiative.
With their CSR strategies demonstrating many innovative responses to the pressing needs of sustainability, an interesting implication is how it is serving to strengthen their position within the market. And with the delivery of increasingly efficient aircraft over the coming decades for long-term airline sustainability, the CSR strategies allow for significant inroads to be made right now. ‘Airline sustainability’ need not be an oxymoron.