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What Does It Mean to Be the Least Unsustainable Airline?

What Does It Mean to Be the Least Unsustainable Airline?
Brenda Bertram

In 2018, Air New Zealand announced it was on track to become the world’s least unsustainable airline. This claim is an interesting one. Air travel, by its very nature, rates on the high end of environmentally unfriendly pursuits. Based on the concept of shuttling people around the world at the lowest cost and fastest speed, historically, there has been very little emphasis on environmental sustainability, or how operations could be changed to try and create a greener future.

All that seems set to change. The rise of a concept called ‘Flight Shame’ has led people to question whether they should be flying at all. Movements such as Flight Free 2020 are encouraging people to reconsider flying. As consumers become savvier to the potential impacts of their travel, and public denouncement of excess (or unnecessary) travel grows, airlines are looking at ways to try and counter both negative publicity and the actual impact of their actions.

As writer Baz Macdonald points out, the carbon emissions for a return flight from Auckland to Seoul is 3.7 tonnes, compared to the average person’s carbon emissions of 4.5 tonnes per year. Living in an isolated island nation, you can’t go anywhere without causing a huge amount of pollution. This year, I’ve traveled to Sri Lanka, Singapore, Japan, the USA, and Vietnam. This leads me to a more concerning question:

Has anyone tried to calculate the carbon emissions of all of those pointless travel influencers, supporting a conversation about the overarching disparity in carbon emissions between the rich and poor?

Airlines are well aware of their operating environment and particularly susceptible to shocks created from changes in consumer demand. Air New Zealand, paradoxically, prides itself on being an environmentally friendly organization, working in one of the least environmentally friendly industries worldwide. It was awarded the title of Eco Airline of the Year at the Air Transport World Awards in 2018. So, what exactly does it mean when it plans to become the world’s least unsustainable airline?

Do They Expect Consumers to Foot the Bill?

Air New Zealand, like many airlines, offers consumers the opportunity to offset their carbon emissions. In 2017, 130,000 people – representing about 5% of all Air New Zealand flights – did so. This is a big increase from previous years, but it’s not enough. An ‘opt-in’ model to sustainability isn’t working. As a regular business consumer of Air New Zealand flights, I doubt my employer is even pushed to off-set emissions – and nor is it incentivized to do so.

Air New Zealand has been transparent about its operations and has published information on its emissions readily. Its lobbying of Government in New Zealand has included a push for stronger regulation in areas such as the Zero Carbon Bill, rather than an easing of regulations for transport operators. However, providing information readily to consumers does not mean that consumers will make an informed choice when it comes to travel, and it’s clear that they are ignoring a carbon offset option. While the airline admirably offsets emissions made from Air New Zealand employee business travel, there is a long way to go in changing the mindsets of the average consumer towards carbon offsets.

The Project Green Initiative

Some of the accolades for Air New Zealand have resulted from its Project Green initiative. This program is designed to try and reduce in-flight waste from aviation. Air New Zealand claims that, in 2018, 16 million individual items from aircraft service – such as sealed beverages and unopened snacks – were recovered for reuse or recycling rather than going to landfill through the initiative.

Single-use plastics have long been part of the aviation world. In years gone by, airlines preferred to use heavier and more expensive, but longer-lasting, metal cutlery, and actual glasses. The September 11 terrorist attacks saw a shift away from providing metal and glass, but it seems the tide is turning on plastic. Air New Zealand has announced it is no longer going to utilize single-use plastics on its domestic flights and is only going to use recyclable materials for in-flight service. It already previously removed many single-use plastic items from its international aircraft and lounges, saving an estimated 260,000 plastic toothbrushes and 7.1 million stirrers in 2017.

Hi-Fly, a Portuguese charter airline, has operated the world’s first plastic-free flight, while other airlines are redesigning in-flight service elements to be lighter and more environmentally friendly. While an obvious solution could be for consumers to bring their own cutlery, that’s unlikely to be a solution we see on a mass scale any time soon. The fact that Air New Zealand – alongside other carriers – are actively committing to reduce plastic consumption is a small step in the right direction.

Burning the Midnight Oil

In 2017, the aviation industry guzzled an eye-watering 5 million barrels of fuel a day. The aviation industry accounts for around 2% of all carbon emissions, and this figure is rising.

The number of people flying on any given day has doubled since 1999 and is predicted to double again by 2037, according to the International Air Transport Association. It’s hard to avoid the fact that 99.7% of Air New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions result from burning fuel. Air New Zealand has long held an interest in biofuels and undertook biofuel testing as early as 2008. While it claimed it expected up to 10% of its fuel usage to be covered by biofuels within five years of that testing, this never eventuated.

Progress on biofuels has, internationally, been slow. In 2008, Virgin Atlantic also carried out a biofuel test flight partially using babassu-nut derived fuel, but its ongoing usage was shelved when concern about diverting a limited food source to fuel was discussed. Biofuel usage is rising, but price and policy are key issues – biofuel is often two or three times more expensive than conventional jet fuel because it’s produced in small batches. Airlines aren’t necessarily incentivized to use them, either.

Air New Zealand has also discussed the possibility of using electric or hybrid aircraft and continues to show an interest in this area. The operation of this type of aircraft, though, is mired in regulatory red tape, and would only be useful for domestic operations – not the international operations where Air New Zealand creates the most emissions.

A Lighter Way to Fly

Several airlines have sought to find ways to operate their aircraft more efficiently, or by using lighter, more environmentally friendly composite materials that reduce drag. This is with an overall aim of burning less fuel.

Like many other airlines, Air New Zealand opted to improve fuel efficiency by an average of 1.5% each year between 2010 and 2020, which it achieved successfully, for a while. However, these gains have plateaued. The gains being made aren’t offsetting the increase in overall travel.

The airline, rightfully, continues to investigate ways in which efficiencies can be made in its operations, which includes consideration of new aircraft models and modes of working. But, Air New Zealand is fighting a rising tide. The number of flights being taken every year is increasing, and the actions being taken to date aren’t enough to offset its growth.

Is All of This Change Enough?

In short – no, it is not.

The changes that Air New Zealand has made, or is making, are fantastic. The airline, alongside other carriers that are trying to fundamentally change the nature of flying, should be applauded. Finnair, for example, is looking to halve its 2005 emission level by 2050 and is undertaking exploratory biofuel flights. However, there is a huge amount of work to be done at the international policy, scientific development, and implementation level to see the real levels of change needed to support lowered emissions from flying.

If Air New Zealand wants to move towards sustainability, it has to start a more drastic shift in how we fuel our air travel.

This isn’t a process where we are likely to see quick wins. It will take years to change the ingrained behaviors of both airlines and their passengers, and we’re already late to the game.

But – if airlines like Air New Zealand can start an industry-wide conversation on what responsibility looks like for international airlines – we may just start to see some progress in slowly creeping towards international emissions reductions goals.


[Featured Image: Wikimedia]

View Comments (4)


  1. nycexpat

    October 25, 2019 at 11:56 am

    Holy moly, while people and businesses preen and fret about plastic straws, tiny paper napkins, and babassu nuts, international population growth continues unabated.
    In 1987 the earth had five BILLION people. 1999 — six billion, now in 2019 seven point seven billion. At borders around the world, staggering numbers of people try to move to a better life.
    But basically where there were five people standing in the late 80s (or seated on a plane or in an inflatable boat crossing the Mediterranean), there are now eight people.
    Now THAT is not sustainable!

  2. Dr.Ells

    October 25, 2019 at 12:37 pm

    Maybe if more people lost a child (our daughter died tragically young, the grief is unending), they would be kinder and more compassionate toward others — and the environment.

  3. closecover

    October 25, 2019 at 1:57 pm

    Nycexpat, well said!

  4. 1readyset2go

    October 26, 2019 at 10:32 pm

    What does it mean to be the least sustainable airline? Well nothing to me sweetie. Bless your poor heart.

    “However, providing information readily to consumers does not mean that consumers will make an informed choice when it comes to travel, and it’s clear that they are ignoring a carbon offset option”

    Really not making an informed choice? Says who? Just because they do not agree with your cult of greenie religion they MUST not be informed! How do you conclude this? Clearly not with any real data. You clearly state the vast majority opt out of the offsets, but you and your ilk know better and seek to impose your will on us? If you want to go back to living in the stone age go right ahead, but my family will pass on that and fly all over the world as often as we want with no offsets.

    What’s really rich is people like Leonardo Dicaprio/Al Gore and other hollywood elites fly around by themselves in their private jets all over the world to events to lecture us on pollution? Start with them! These types scream the loudest at the ignorant masses while polluting 1000 times worse with each flight on their GS6’s and I am the problem? The whole post makes me want to due an extra mileage run or 2. Take you politics elsewhere and good luck flight shaming me. Did it ever occur that the vast majority don’t agree with you? I will wave my freedom banner (made of non- recyclable material) right in front from people espousing this garage.

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