The COVID-19 pandemic has brought forth unprecedented changes in the airline industry. Travel restrictions, social distancing, and market uncertainty are just some of the challenges that aviation companies are being forced to adapt to. Unfortunately, the future of many airlines could be greatly impacted by this public health crisis. While the consequences of this pandemic will be undeniably tragic for many individuals and businesses alike, there is a silver lining- this is a chance to reinvent air travel for the better.
Before the pandemic hit, airlines were grappling with another existential crisis- climate change. Imagine all the airlines in the world were part of one country. If this was the case, that country would be in the top 10 of global emitters of greenhouse gasses (GHG). Air travel itself accounts for between 2-5% of annual CO2 emissions, and according to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), emissions from air travel could further increase by 300-700% by 2050. For years, the airline industry has been tiptoeing around the issue of reducing emissions to limit climate change. While the industry has pledged to halve their emissions by 2050, many companies have yet to prioritize sustainability. However, the simultaneous existential threats caused by COVID-19 and the climate crisis have reinvigorated the debate around the importance of sustainable or “green” air travel.
Before 2020, it was understandable that an aviation company would be hesitant to embark on a sustainability-focused agenda. After all, the investment cost to achieve a sustainable business framework is high, and there was still little to no market or government incentive to do so.
However, global awareness and demands for high-polluting companies and corporations to be held accountable for their emissions are growing. For example, a new phenomenon called “flight-shaming” has emerged out of Greta Thunberg’s climate movement, urging (or shaming) people to avoid air travel whenever possible because of its large environmental footprint as compared to other means of transportation. This should be a wakeup call to the aviation industry that the environmental impact of flying is becoming a growing concern for a large faction of the industry’s customer base.
So where is the silver lining in all this? Incorporating sustainability into the aviation industry business framework may not have been a profitable endeavor in the past but refusing to adapt to the changing social and environmental climate of this new decade will ultimately be detrimental to the industry. While the threats of climate change alone weren’t enough to force significant change in the industry with this regard, the simultaneous threat of the global pandemic is the push airlines need to reinvent the wheel. With flight-shaming, travel restrictions, and people’s general aversion to flying during a pandemic, the aviation industry is faced with a difficult dilemma. Either adapt to the conditions of this new world or lose the trust and business of many of their customers. Sustainability is not a trend, it’s a movement; the companies that recognize this early on will be in a much better position down the line. With a 55% decline in profits expected to devastate the airline industry this year due to COVID-19, airlines can no longer afford to also be losing business due to negligent environmental practices and policies.
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Special Projects Manager