More travelers want their decisions about air travel to reflect their own climate priorities
By Ralf Walters
Responding to the urgent alarm sounded in Paris at the December 2015 UN Climate Change Conference, key players in the travel industry are joining the fight to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The goal is to limit the global temperature increase this century to two degrees Celsius, and ideally one-point-five degrees, the limits ratified by 192 countries and the European Union in the Paris Agreement.
Government regulatory pressures aside, concurrently there has been a groundswell of support from corporations and among individual travelers who want to do the right thing. Topics once reserved for scientists in white lab coats are now everyday conversation for conscientious travelers searching for information about an airline’s carbon offset initiatives and sustainable alternative fuel programs, and how these impact costs prior to booking a flight.
However, while carbon data is available on airline websites, the information is mostly limited to an airline’s average emissions which means nothing compared to specific aircraft and flight data. Fortunately, there are a fleet of industry experts eager to guide travelers toward responsible booking decisions.
By the Numbers According to recent proprietary research from SAP Concur, most business travelers surveyed (87 percent) say they would like to see sustainability information when booking business travel, including having tools to compare sustainability measures for different transportation options (45 percent) and various accommodation options (48 percent).
The survey found 41 percent open to taking fewer but longer business trips, while a similar number would stay in a less preferred but greener hotel. Among transportation options, 32 percent would take public transport, and 27 percent would choose a less-preferred mode if it were available. Most striking, the survey reported that business travelers are more likely to consider the environmental impact of their choices for business travel more than personal travel by a wide margin – 58 percent vs. 43 percent.
“We know that many travelers want to make more sustainable purchasing decisions when it comes to flights – not just the cheapest,” says Nick Whitehead, head of marketing at Serko, a provider of corporate travel and expense management technology. “So we've worked with our partner TEM to bring in emissions data based on the actual flight and seat class and not just an estimate based on flight distance. This makes it easy for travelers to compare their environmental impact across different airlines, aircraft, fuel types or routing as well as make more sustainable choices. Key to this is having real-world calculations on emissions data which we're fortunate enough to have access to.”
At Corporate Travel Management, travel content is aggregated from a range of sources, including GDS, APIs and NDC, according to John Nicholls, CTM’s global head of ESG and sustainability, to ensure users have access to a broad range of content via their preferred booking channel “We then configure unique corporate travel policy requirements to prioritize or limit how the content is presented to the user. Then we provide users with the ability to filter results by factors such as price, efficiency, reviews, and carbon impact as measured by CO2 emissions,” Nicholls explains.
“We also provide detailed carbon reporting in CTM’s Data Hub reporting tools, so that travel program managers can understand the carbon impact of their travel program, with insights dissectible by trip and traveler, service type (air, hotel, car rental), service provider, routes, and fare class. And we provide our clients the ability to offset their travel programs’ carbon footprint by supporting their choice of a range of sustainability initiatives through our partnership with South Pole.”
Nicholls says CTM’s proprietary online booking tool – Lightning – uses “globally recognized travel data from RDC to highlight the relative carbon impact of each flight segment.” These calculations, he explains, are based on factors such as aircraft type and age, the engine model, fuel burn and seat configuration. “Lightning also enables users to choose a more environmentally sustainable mode of transport where available, such as rail,” he adds.
More than three-quarters (76 percent) of US travel managers surveyed by SAP Concur in the past 12 months report their companies have updated travel guidelines or policies to have a greater focus on sustainability. “There are many ways companies can manage the environmental impact of their business travel programs,” says Brian Hace, SAP Concur’s head of travel products and TMC services.
One way is to start with sourcing, Hace says. Many organizations have pre-negotiated contracts with travel suppliers to secure discounted rates. Businesses can evaluate and communicate with these suppliers to ensure sustainability is a priority and information like carbon emissions is front and center for employees booking travel.
Hace says SAP Concur has sustainability features all the way through the travel and expense process, from pre-trip booking, to during the trip, and finally the expense report post-trip. “Our Concur Travel and Expense solutions connect with Thrust Carbon, making it easy to calculate emissions from travel spend and itinerary data,” he explains. “This means travel managers can analyze every travel emission, from flights to hotels and trains to mileage from rental cars. They also can set carbon budgets in line with company-specific goals and then view and assess live travel emissions from business travelers against these targets.”
Fueling Change As air carriers strive to meet self-imposed environmental goals, sustainable aviation fuels are one solution garnering much attention. SAF is made from renewable biomass and waste resources, and thus might be considered biofuels. But ‘biofuel’ does not necessarily equal sustainable; to truly be sustainable, the fuel must meet criteria such as lifecycle carbon emissions reduction, limited freshwater requirements, no competition with needed food production (such as first-generation biofuels) and no deforestation count.
The technology has the potential to deliver the performance of petroleum-based jet fuel at a fraction of its carbon footprint. But that assumes that enough SAF can be readily produced to fuel a thirsty global fleet, which consumes an astounding 278 billion liters of jet fuel each year. With SAF production still in its infancy, total global output hovered around just 100 million liters last year. In addition, even at today’s inflated oil prices, the cost of a liter of SAF is still about five times that of conventional jet fuel.
Clearly, it would be a monumental effort to shift the entire system to sustainable aviation fuel. But industry support worldwide is significant, as airlines look for ways to decouple greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from flight. Practically every major carrier in the world is involved in supporting the production, purchase and use of SAF. United was the first airline globally to incorporate SAF in regular operations on a continuous basis, using a blended fuel to help sustainably power every flight departing its Los Angeles hub since 2016. Delta Air Lines, Alaska Airlines and Southwest are all on the SAF pipeline as well.
Boeing is targeting a goal of making all new commercial aircraft deliveries “capable and certified to fly on 100 percent sustainable aviation fuels by 2030.” And the 14 member airlines of the Oneworld Alliance have pledged their support for the ambition statement of World Economic Forum Clean Skies for Tomorrow Coalition to commit to a 10 percent use of SAF by 2030.
“Air travel is the largest contributor to business-travel related carbon emissions, so it’s no surprise that most airlines are focused on sustainability right now,” according to Kathy Jackson, vice president, executive chair sustainability at BCD Travel. “Many airlines are purchasing and investing in sustainable aviation fuel, but the current technology doesn’t allow airlines to scale SAF usage enough to truly reduce their overall emissions.”
Meanwhile, one of the most effective things airlines can do is accelerate fleet renewal, says Jackson. “Older generation aircraft are not nearly as efficient and result in a big emissions increase. Many airlines are integrating sustainability on-board as well, using recycled material for paper napkins, cups, etc., and reducing single-use plastics. Additional efforts include working with airports to modernize airport traffic control to reduce holding time before landing, and other initiatives.”
Nicholls believes it is increasingly important that travel suppliers continue to “adapt, upgrade and innovate” their services to drive more sustainable travel outcomes, while differentiating their offering in an increasingly competitive landscape and to capitalize on travel demand. “CTM is pleased to have partnered with early movers in this space, such as our sustainable aviation fuel agreement with Delta Airlines, the first multi-year SAF commitment for the airline that will reduce lifecycle emissions by 209 metric tons of carbon dioxide over three years.”
At JetBlue, director and head of sustainability and ESG Sara Bogdan points to the airline’s launch of its Sustainable Travel Partners program in January. Bogdan says the initiative came from the understanding that historically, “business travelers have not had the ability to estimate their air travel emissions in a personalized, accurate, or granular way.” The program includes “business travel emissions reduction through the offering of JetBlue-generated SAF certificates, complimentary carbon offsetting on all domestic flights operated by JetBlue, personalized travel data and analysis for more accurate emissions reporting, and consultation and tools for custom planning and target-setting to support in making more sustainable travel decisions.”
With the additional option to purchase JetBlue issued SAF certificates, Bogdan says corporate customers can reduce their reported carbon footprint while also enabling JetBlue to expand its usage of SAF by helping cover the price premium between conventional and sustainable aviation fuel. “This additional investment helps increase demand for SAF, creating a positive feedback loop for the emerging industry to produce more supply,” she explains.
Measure Twice, Cut Once Across the spectrum of sustainability efforts, establishing standards to gauge progress is a critical area in the “journey for our industry,” says the Global Business Travel Association’s senior vice president, sustainability, Delphine Millot. Many travel providers are addressing the issue within their organizations, but must also develop “shared and consistent measures” across the industry, she explains. “Fragmentation and the multiplication of green credentials is a real pain point for travel managers.”
Asking the right questions is key to getting to the right metrics around sustainability, Millot advises. Questions such as: “How to collect accurate data? How to nudge employees toward greener travel options? And how to even recognize sustainable travel offers in the first place?”
A key focus of GBTA’s work has been on carbon emissions, she explains. “We want to empower travel managers to get comfortable measuring and tracking both the company’s aggregate business travel emissions against a set baseline and the emissions of individual trips taken by business travelers.”
Millot says many corporations have already committed to the goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050 and that the industry is moving toward establishing a “pathway and action plan” for how they can achieve it. This work is already in motion, she says. “Out of the 3,000-plus corporations who committed under the Science-Based Targets initiatives around 100 unveiled targets specific to business travel.”
On the road to net zero, one of the main ways that companies’ greenhouse gas emissions are measured and assessed is by using internationally accepted standards called Scopes as defined by Green Gas House (GHG) Protocol. A Scope 1 emission is made directly; Scope 2 is an indirect emission; and Scope 3 emissions are indirect which occur in the value chain of the reporting company, including upstream and downstream emissions.
One of the challenges for measuring GHG emissions, Millot says, is the lack of access to transparent and accurate data, but progress is underway. “We know that 55 percent of travel buyers are already measuring and 56 percent are reporting the environmental impact of their business travel activities. Emissions data may not be perfectly accurate, but this should not stop travel managers from setting a baseline and tracking emissions. Better data is also critical to efforts to get uptake from employees to make more informed choices and select greener travel options.”
As local and global companies increase their governance of corporate responsibility and ESG reporting, such as respective Scope 3 emissions, Nicholls says “the tracking, reporting, and offsetting of travel-related GHG emissions will become business-as-usual in the near future.
The existential threat of climate change has dramatically changed the way we view our world since the first celebration of Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Now flying at higher altitudes and faster speeds, the business traveler looking down on Mother Earth sees a planet that’s smaller and more fragile than it seemed a few decades ago. Success will require group effort on an enormous scale – and business travelers, TMCs, airlines and suppliers are leading the way.