In 2017, flights produced 859 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and 5.7 million tonnes of passenger waste. In the quest for airlines to become more sustainable, it’s sometimes hard to decide where to start.
It may not be easy, but a lot is being achieved. We’ve already seen developments to produce fuel alternatives, better engines and more technologically advanced aircraft. Such initiatives often require significant investments.
In this industry, small actions can also have a huge impact – on both the environment and an airline's bottom line. Here are 7 ways airlines can make flights more sustainable and profitable.
Making Air Travel More Eco-Friendly
1. Sell Branded Reusable Drink Bottles
An enormous 91% of plastic doesn’t get recycled. Just imagine the scene at airports, where a LOT of plastic bottles end up in the trash due to the no-liquids rule at security checkpoints. Passengers can’t bring drinks through airport security, but that doesn’t mean they can’t bring their own empty drink bottles to fill up later.
Airlines can do their part by selling their own branded reusable drink bottles and encouraging passengers to use them on flights and in their daily lives. For example, KLM sells branded bottles that can be delivered during flights. These bottles are made by Dopper, a brand with the aim to reduce single-use plastic and increase access to safe drinking water.
2. Partner Up with Eco-Hotels and Green Transportation Providers
Accommodation and car hire options are a common staple of an airline's ancillary strategy. But hotels often consume a lot of energy and water and produce a lot of waste. Meanwhile, vehicles produce one-third of all U.S. air pollution. When airlines promote these services, they unfortunately contribute to the problem.
This presents an opportunity for airlines to provide greener alternatives by creating partnerships with public transportation bodies, shuttle bus services and eco-hotels. Etihad has teamed up with the national railway companies Deutsche Bahn (Germany) and SNCF (France). Thomas Cook Group works with Travelife, a sustainability accreditation scheme aimed at hotels.
3. Go Paperless
Paper creates unnecessary waste and extra weight for planes. Inflight magazines can weigh between 80 and 200kg, depending on the number of pages and plane seats. Digital magazines can solve this problem. KLM has introduced a digital reading app that saves 360,000 kg per year, while Lufthansa has replaced magazines and newspapers with free downloadable eJournals.
There are many more opportunities to cut back on paper. In 2017, Southwest Airlines upgraded its reservation system, eliminating paper tickets in favor of e-tickets. Thomas Cook Group are rolling out electronic tech logs to replace paper manuals on flights. They also introduced a new onboard smart device for e-receipts, saving over 2,000 miles of paper – the equivalent of 250 trees.
4. Scrap Your Duty-Free or Provide Sustainably-Sourced Options
Continuing the theme of reducing weight, some airlines have stopped offering onboard duty-free sales. In March 2017, United Airlines followed Delta and American Airlines and dropped its duty-free program, as sales performance was falling due to increased competition from airport vendors. This move reportedly saved United 1.4 million gallons and $2.3 million in annual fuel costs.
However, airlines like Korean Air – the world’s leading airline for in-flight sales, with an expected $143 million in 2018 sales – probably won't scrap their duty-free. But they can provide eco-friendly options. For cosmetics, the biggest duty-free segment, there are many sustainably-sourced products. Airlines can take it further and use sales data to only carry items with a high likelihood of purchase.
5. Enforce Stricter Baggage Policies
This might not be popular with overpackers, but if you’ve made it this far down the article you’ll know that less weight on a plane makes it more fuel-efficient. Many low-cost carriers have already enforced baggage restrictions by charging for hold luggage and giving weight limits for carry-on bags. Airlines don't always measure hand luggage, though.
Many passengers continue to bring bags that are oversized or over the weight limit, which leads to safety risks, delays and a heavier load for the plane. Australian airlines decided to present a united front by announcing stricter cabin bag checks. More airlines can follow this example and, if needed, enforce penalties for going over the limit – just make your policy clear to customers.
6. Introduce Pre-Ordered Meals
Planes often oversupply the prepackaged food onboard to give passengers as much of a meal choice as possible. This can lead to wastage, especially on international flights where food may need to be destroyed immediately due to agricultural risks. It all adds up – IATA estimates that cabin waste was 5.7 million tonnes in 2017, while disposal costs add up to $700 million per year.
Many airlines – especially low-cost carriers – let passengers select their meals before flying. It makes it easier to predict what to stock for those who didn't choose a meal in advance, which overall reduces how much unnecessary food is on a plane. Mark Ross-Smith, big data specialist and airline consultant, says this “lowers costs and weight on board, which translates to lower fuel burn.”
7. Fill Up Those Seats!
A full flight is win-win for an airline. It means more revenue, and it's also better for the environment. With a 100% load factor, there are fewer emissions per passenger. It's easier said than done, though. A promotion may be a quick fix, but this could affect forecasting and undercut expected profits. Flights might be underpriced or ads may run for flights that would have already sold out.
Advanced aviation software platforms such as Yieldr Air can target the right travelers for flights that have an underperforming load factor, while still considering factors such as buyer behavior and real-world events – all while optimizing profits for each seat sold. The result is more passengers on fewer planes at a higher profit margin, which is a win for airlines and sustainability.
Going green often requires a big investment in money. But small actions can also make an impact on sustainability, while still being profitable for airlines. Here's to a more efficient and eco-friendly future for air travel!