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Inside the Marketing Battle to Become the World’s “Greenest” Airline

Inside the Marketing Battle to Become the World’s “Greenest” Airline
Jeff Edwards

Airlines have every reason to tout the steps they are taking to protect the environment, but the concept of “green air travel” has become such a powerful marketing tool that competing carriers are now belittling each other’s efforts, while at the same time, citing some rather dubious claims about their own initiatives to save the planet.

The benefits of consumers having the option to choose more environmentally sustainable products is arguably a good thing – from the popularity of reusable water bottles to the rise of fuel-efficient hybrid cars – even the little things can make a positive impact on the planet in the long run. More and more, offering green products can also mean big business. The airline industry isn’t immune to this trend and the battle for dollars from environmentally conscious passengers is getting downright prickly.

United Airlines pulled out all the stops this summer, choosing World Environment Day on June 5th to highlight each of the legacy carrier’s environmental initiatives in a single “Flight for the Planet” from Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) for Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). The first-of-its-kind flight was powered by a 30/70 biofuel and featured near-zero cabin waste with inflight meals served from compostable containers onto reusable plates. The swizzle sticks were made of bamboo and the perishable items were sealed with beeswax. Even the support equipment on the ground was 100% electric-powered. The passengers on the flight took advantage of United’s existing carbon offsetting programs, thereby allowing the airline to claim a completely carbon-neutral cross-country flight.

“The historic Flight for the Planet showcases United’s philosophy of working together to find new and innovative ways to lead us into a more sustainable future,” United Airlines President Scott Kirby said in a statement celebrating the successful flight.  “As an airline, we see our environment from a unique perspective every day and we know we must do our part to protect our planet and our skies.”

There is some debate as to exactly how much of a positive environmental impact United’s Flight for the Planet actually made (for example, the biofuel used for the flight was trucked in from the west coast), but there is little doubt that the venture was a success as a marketing tool. If the carbon-neutral flight didn’t help a whole lot in saving the planet, it certainly ruined the day of American Airlines CEO Doug Parker.

“I get annoyed by things like you read from United saying they’re the most environmentally conscious,” Parker said in recent public comments first reported by Gary Leff for Forbes. “They’re not. They’re flying around average airplanes that are 15 years old. We’re flying around an average fleet that’s 9 years old. We’re much more environmentally friendly than United Airlines right now because we’ve invested in more fuel-efficient aircraft. They say that about some effort they’re doing with biofuels, so again good for them, not saying they shouldn’t do that. But having one airplane flying around with some biofuel testing as opposed to having a fleet of 1500 airplanes, 500 new airplanes while they’re flying 500 old airplanes around. We’re doing much better things for the environment than they are.”

Getting under Doug Parker’s skin is one sure sign that United is hitting the mark when viewed from a competitive, if not environmentally responsible vantage. When it comes to other rival airlines, however, actions rather than words seem to indicate that United is onto something – especially if the old adage, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” holds true.

“Frontier is proud to introduce a new class of service for all of our customers, Green Class,” Frontier CEO Barry Biffle said in a statement unveiling the new initiative. “Consumers are now looking for choices that align with the values they hold, and I am proud that Frontier is able to provide that choice for our valued passengers and empower them to make air travel a part of their personal sustainable choices.”

Biffle also stakes a claim to the title of “America’s Greenest Airline.” The CEO notes that Frontier operates a fleet with more A320neo aircraft than any other U.S. airline, making the ultra-low-cost-carrier nearly 40% more fuel-efficient than competing carriers, including American Airlines and United Airlines.

Along with eco-friendly service items and a straw-free cabin, Frontier Airlines’ “Green Class” offers some more dubious-sounding environmental benefits, including a wifi-free seating area and non-reclining seats. The airline promises that the upgrade also comes with the “peace of mind that you’ve made a thoughtful and responsible choice.”

While U.S. airlines argue over relative fuel efficiency and the environmental effects of free wifi, when it comes to reducing the environmental impact of air travel, Scandinavians have taken naming and shaming to a whole new level. In fact, the Swedish language has even coined the work “flygskam” or flight shaming to describe the guilt environmentally conscious passengers feel over flying. This growing sentiment, that includes the very real threat of increased taxes and regulations, is not lost on one of the region’s largest carriers.

“I believe that if aviation as an industry fails to articulate a trustworthy roadmap towards a more sustainable industry, and not just hide behind an aggressive goal by 2040, or by 2050, but articulate a clear roadmap from now to the future with tangible sub-goals,” Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) CEO Rickard Gustafson told investors this week in comments reported by Skift. “If we can’t do that, I think the risk for further political involvement and regulation is significant.”

Rival carrier KLM appears to have taken this message to heart. The airline recently inked a deal to work with the developers of an ultra-fuel-efficient new passenger plane design. KLM will work with engineers at TU Delft to create new configurations for the one-of-a-kind interior spaces of the much-heralded Flying-V and will also be instrumental in testing new lightweight components planned to be used in the new plane’s cabin.

“In recent years, KLM has developed as a pioneer in sustainability within the airline industry,” KLM CEO Pieter Elbers said of the deal. “The development of aviation has given the world a great deal, offering us an opportunity to connect people. This privilege is paired with a huge responsibility for our planet. KLM takes this very seriously and has therefore been investing in sustainability at different levels for many years, enabling it to develop a broad spectrum of sustainability initiatives. We are proud of our progressive cooperative relationship with TU Delft, which ties in well with KLM’s strategy and serves as an important milestone for us on the road to scaling-up sustainable aviation.”

Although the competition to established bona fides as the world’s most environmentally conscious airline has become at times cynical, and in some cases childish, the fact that the airline industry now sees sustainability as good for the bottom line may help to push the needle in ways that would have been unheard of only a few years ago. In any case, it certainly can’t hurt.


[Featured Image: United]

View Comments (1)

1 Comment

  1. CEB

    August 30, 2019 at 11:59 am

    Congratulation Jeff, finally an article that is reasonably well written and not just another flaming rant. I am serious in this compliment as I truly get tired of all the negativity from most blogger, including yourself. So it is indeed refreshing to see something like this.

    On the other hand, the folks quoted in this article do seem to be parroting many of the somewhat disingenuous claims to ‘green’! For example, electricity is very far from being a green energy source. While it is great for the LOCAL air quality, its impact on the environment as a whole is entirely negative and in almost all cases more negative than even automobile exhaust. The negative environmental impacts of mining for the materials needed for batteries, solar cells (which still have a very short lifetime relative to their negative environmental impacts for their production), and even bio-fuels whose carbon footprint is actually greater than oil when the environmental costs of their production are included in the analysis. And remember, bio-fuels produce their own carbon footprint when used as they still produce energy by burning and emitting CO2! Electricity produced by hydro and nuclear (unpopular and not without risks, but most certainly cleaner than anything other than hydro) are definitely positive alternatives, but we need to step up and face the realities of electricity production impacts before we hop on the bandwagon.

    There are many things that we can and need to do to reduce negative environmental impacts. Climate change is most definitely real, but we will not solve the problems by pretending we are being green while pursuing deceptive practices and marketing. Bottom line is that I agree with your comments about green air travel being primarily a marketing game at this point in time. Travel will always have its environmental costs. I do however believe that the positive impact of air travel on human interaction, understanding and peace is more than worth the cost. We do have a path to the future with respect to ground travel and day to day living that does, can and will have FAR greater impact on the environment than air travel. Let us focus on the far bigger issues close to home where we can truly have a positive impact on the environment!

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