Air transport is an important contributor to a globalized world. However, its contribution to human-induced CO2 emission is seen as a threat to sustainability. With the flying shame movement from Sweden (“flygskam”), airline emissions have gained focus in the sustainability debate. In all fairness, air traffic contributes only around 2% of global human-induced CO2 emissions.
On the other hand, air transport is the highest contributor to CO2 emissions among all transportation modes. In addition to CO2, air traffic also emits NOx emissions. And – different to other pollution sources – air traffic emissions happen at a height of approximately 12km where the atmosphere is especially sensitive to these emissions.
For sure, the coronavirus pandemic has not established the “flying shame debate”, but it has fostered the sensitivity for sustainability topics.
Even though hydrogen-based engine development is on its way, it is still far from standard application. Different from other emission sources, the CO2 footprint of airlines can be reduced and compensated but aircraft engines will not be fully CO2 neutral for at least the next decade to come.
In this light, one may ask whether a green airline is a realistic scenario?
This leads to a critical managerial situation: Even if airlines followed the calls from their sustainability-focused customers, they would not be able to cut CO2 emissions in the short term. Therefore, intense communication on green measures without significant tangible reduction efforts in the short term could lead to a loss of trust and the customer perception that airlines are just greenwashing.
To avoid negative customer perceptions, airlines need to admit their impact on the climate whilst proposing a long-term plan to reduce their CO2 and NOx footprint. Only if the perception is that airlines take their impact on the climate seriously, customers will honor their activity. In the future, promoting newer, more fuel-efficient aircraft alone might not be sufficient in the view of critical customers. Instead, airlines need a self-reflected, open, and realistic path to more sustainability encompassed with authentic measures. A communication that tries to emphasize the small overall impact of air traffic might rather lead to negative word of mouth, in the future. Moreover, communication on low-priced promotions in parallel to sustainability communication might destroy the trust of critical customers.
Despite its only 2% contribution to human-induced CO2, air traffic will be in the focus of critical customers more than ever. Only by properly managing sustainability concerns, airlines will be able to keep control of their sustainability perception and image in general. This new focus calls for close coordination of its marketing and sustainability initiatives to develop coherent communication approaches.