Business travelers looking to make sustainability a top priority need the right tools to make the most of their green choices
By Harvey Chipkin
Agrowing number of consumers are voting with their pocketbooks in support of environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) issues. Increasingly they are choosing products and services that align with their convictions rather than cost – everything from the amount of power their electronics consume to single-use plastics is under the microscope.
When it comes to air travel decisions, business travelers are no exception. According to a recent GBTA survey, 77 percent of respondents say making more sustainable choices is a priority. In response, travel suppliers are scrambling to create sustainability metrics to make ‘green’ decisions more evident during the booking process. Airlines, hotels and travel management companies are fielding tools that give travelers the power to know the ‘right’ choices to meet corporate and personal goals and create a more sustainable travel footprint. But are these tools really providing travelers the right information at the right time?
So far, the verdict is still out. To find and book the right flight to minimize environmental impact, decision makers need the right data to make a responsible decision. But while some airlines, online booking platforms, and TMCs currently say they are supplying travel customers with tools to make sustainability decisions, other suppliers are only in the early stages of development.
Nevertheless, not all sustainability tools are created equal. For example, while some airlines may post annual carbon data reports to their websites showing comparative figures and progress in current versus past years, carbon data for individual flight routes and type of aircraft are not generally available, raising concerns for air travelers.
But real solutions are in the works. For example, Corporate Travel Management’s proprietary online booking tool, Lightning, gives customers the ability to view and compare carbon data for each flight, hotel and car rental segment at the point of sale, according to John Nicholls, CTM’s global head of ESG and sustainability. The solution uses the “most granular carbon emissions calculations in the industry” from RDC Aviation, he says.
“This sustainability feature enables customers to view and compare the carbon impact of all available travel services including comparisons by carrier, route, class of travel and room and vehicle type to support them in making more sustainable travel choices when booking their travel,” Nicholls explains. “We present the total carbon emissions of the selected travel itinerary, provide customers with the option of implementing carbon budgets to track and limit carbon emissions generated by region, team or traveler, and provide the ability to offset the emissions generated by the travel itinerary through CTM’s Climate+ program.”
Once the information is gathered, Nicholls says, customers have complete visibility of their travel program’s carbon footprint through CTM’s Data Hub reporting tool which provides snapshots of carbon impact by individual traveler, trip and supplier.
According to an in-house survey from CWT conducted in 2022, 87 percent of their customers wanted information at the point-of-booking to help influence “more environmentally sustainable choices.” Charles Sullivan, VP of product management says, “CWT began offering CO2 calculations and indicators in our ‘myCWT’ booking in July 2022 for air and hotel followed by rail and car.”
While travel suppliers continue to improve the ways environmental impact is measured and tracked, more has to be done to give travelers all the information they need, according to Julien Etchanchu, sustainability practice lead with travel consultancy Advito. “There is not an extremely strong tool in the market today. Google flights is one of the best point-of-sale options, but they clearly underestimate emissions by not factoring in the non-CO2 effects of air travel. Because most methodologies don’t factor in this important element into their calculations, we recommend that clients don’t simply rely on the airlines’ estimations and carbon data reports.” Etchanchu says this is one of the “big challenges facing our industry today,” but adds, “We’re working hard to come up with a solution to provide accurate POS emissions data.”
Where green booking tools are available, is everybody using the same metrics? After all, comparing apples to oranges is famously difficult. “There is no standard set of ESG metrics that everyone in the corporate travel space is using,” Etchanchu cautions. “We consider our proprietary emissions calculation methodology, GATE4, to be the industry’s most accurate, because we take into account the aircraft type when calculating emissions, where most other standard methodologies apply basic averages.”
The technology also takes radiative forcing (non-CO2 effects) into account as well, Etchanchu says. “It’s important that these key factors are included in air travel emissions figures to help drive sustainable decision making. Having inaccurate data can lead to travelers making the wrong decisions and actually increase their carbon footprint.” Not everyone is using the same metrics, Nicholls points out. “There are a multitude of carbon calculators on the market, each with varying degrees of methodology, accuracy and limitations,” he says. “CTM’s Lightning online booking tool integrates carbon data and sustainability credentials from RDC Aviation and other leading third-party providers.”
These sustainability insights are presented alongside each travel segment within search results, enabling users to sort by lowest emission across all travel products, filter and preference results by emissions, filter car results for electric and hybrid vehicles only, and sort by CTM ‘Green Choice’ providers. “CTM’s Data Hub provides customers with visibility of their travel program’s carbon footprint with total CO² emissions by month; average CO² emissions per trip and traveler; CO² emissions by service type (air/hotel/car/rail); by service provider; and CO² emissions by fare class,” Nicholls explains.
Sullivan concurs. “There are currently several CO2 calculation methodologies available which can vary by sales channel which can cause confusion,” he says. “Historically CWT provided CO2 emission information using the DEFRA calculation methodology. We added the more robust Thrust Carbon methodology to power the CO2 emission information at the point of sale through myCWT, for agent assist transactions, on the itinerary and as another reporting option.”
As stated on CWT’s website, Thrust Carbon’s carbon intelligence platform “provides CO2 emission calculations with cutting-edge accuracy and clarity, empowering travelers to make smart decisions and reduce their environmental impacts with minimal effort.” Mark Corbett, founder and director of Thrust Carbon, says, “If the traveler cannot see their emissions at point-of-sale, then it simply will not be a factor in their decision making.” However, he notes, “We are rapidly moving to a world where emissions data will be valued side by side with financial data.”
When that day comes, sustainability metrics will need to be as robust as any balance sheet, and some companies are already developing strategies to meet corporate objectives. For example, Microsoft is reportedly penalizing travel budgets when carbon goals aren’t met. Other companies have set up carbon wallets to allow travelers to track usage. Advito encourages carbon budgeting and carbon pricing as tools to reduce the carbon footprint of a travel program. “We recently helped our client, LinkedIn, implement an internal carbon price at the point of sale for all corporate travel air fares, which is a great way to educate travelers and make them aware of the impact of a flight, collect money to finance sustainable initiatives, and prepare for the future as it’s possible that a carbon tax could become mandatory at some point,” Etchanchu says.
Nicholls says CTM’s online booking tool enables companies to set carbon budgets by region, team, or individual carbon budgets. “It puts the travel arranger front and center of the travel program’s sustainability performance, empowering them to make more sustainable travel decisions.” The tool shows the carbon budget in real time and limits further environmental impact when carbon budgets are reached or exceeded.
“Sustainability has become a top priority for most of our clients which has forced travel managers into the position of becoming a sustainability expert, seemingly overnight,” Sullivan says. To help them in their roles, he says CWT has offered “robust sustainability analytics” for over 10 years and continues to innovate in that space, developing an “ECO framework” to help companies minimize their carbon footprint while also considering employee interests and organization’s goals. “In July last year we enhanced our CO2 reporting capabilities with new carbon emission summary dashboards.”
The airline industry is a significant producer of greenhouse gases, accounting for around two percent of all carbon emissions and 12 percent of all transportation-related emissions, according to IATA’s Air Transport Action Group. In regions with mature aviation markets, such as the US and EU, air travel emissions are closer to four percent of overall emissions. So, it’s no wonder that more travelers want their decisions about air travel to reflect their own climate priorities. It is an encouraging that business travel suppliers are developing new software tools to help green travelers make ‘right’ decisions.
However, while air travel gets the lion’s share of focus in efforts to control emissions, other sectors of the travel industry are also attracting attention. Among the most critical, Etchanchu says, is the impact on the traveler’s wellbeing. In response, Advito has implemented a traveler wellbeing dashboard to track key data points beyond emissions. “It’s very important that our clients don’t build a program that prioritizes the environment at the complete expense of their people,” he says. “We can help clients drill down into the data to understand the differences between their traveler populations, give them an overall wellbeing score, and even benchmark them against them to their peers.”
Etchanchu listed a few of the many criteria framed as questions that the dashboard tracks: Do you fly economy or business on long-haul? Do you take a lot of indirect flights? Do you fly to high security risk countries? Do you travel a lot during the weekends? How long are your layovers?
It’s all part of the push to factor both environmental and personal costs into the travel value equation. “Airlines, manufacturers, governments, consumers and yet-to-be-discovered contributors alike need to work together to advance climate-friendly programs and services – all while elevating the overall travel experience,” says Pam Fletcher, chief sustainability officer at Delta Airlines.
“While CO2 calculations are important,” concludes Sullivan, “we have found adding additional context, like our eco-friendly label for hotels, are also important. Sustainable business travel is a ‘we’ problem and it’s critical we continue to address it on an open and collaborative basis.”