Why COVID Won’t Set Back Aviation’s Sustainability Goals

The results of a significant industry survey are set to be revealed tomorrow. Conducted as part of FlightPlan, an event by Inmarsat and the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX), the poll asked some key questions about COVID and its impact on aviation. Simple Flying has been granted early access to these results and has taken a deep dive into one of the most pertinent questions of the poll: what impact will COVID have on the drive towards sustainability for the industry?

Sunlight on B777
What has COVID done to the sustainability objectives of the industry? Photo: Lufthansa Group

Industry survey results revealed

Tomorrow will see the reveal of the results of a major industry poll conducted as part of FlightPlan: Charting a Course into the Future, an online broadcast by Inmarsat and the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX). Simple Flying has had the opportunity to check out some of the results and to dive into the reasons behind the outcomes.

One of the questions asked by FlightPlan was:

What impact do you believe the pandemic crisis will have on the aviation industry’s path to sustainability?

It’s a pertinent question, given the current climate. In some ways, COVID has been good for the environment, with far fewer planes in the sky and the retirement of older and less efficient aircraft removing tons of carbon, both today and for the future.

Qantas plans farewell flights for 747
Retiring older and inefficient aircraft will have helped reduce CO2. Photo: Getty Images

Indeed, some airline bailout packages have come with green strings attached, and last month more than a dozen air transport associations representing Europe’s aviation sector called on EU leaders to include decarbonization initiatives in COVID recovery funding packages.

As such, it could be predicted that COVID will actually accelerate progress on sustainable aviation. However, the results of the survey were less clear cut.

Industry split on the impact of COVID on sustainability goals

The results of the FlightPlan survey showed mixed feelings about the impact of COVID on sustainability goals. From more than 500 responses received from aviation professionals around the world, 36% believed the crisis would accelerate progress, and 47% thought it would delay progress.

Why COVID Won’t Set Back Aviation’s Sustainability Goals

11% didn’t think it would have much of an impact either way, while a small percentage felt unable to comment on the topic.

Clearly, opinion is somewhat split on this subject. While there’s a good third in support of COVID accelerating progress, it’s hard to ignore the almost 50% who thought it would delay the plans airlines have in place.

Color on the results

To add some color to these results, Simple Flying spoke with some of the industry professionals to understand what might have swayed their vote. We asked John Broughton, Senior Vice President, Aircraft Operations and Safety at Inmarsat Aviation, where he thought sustainability in aviation was headed. He told us,

“This crisis is an opportunity for the industry to review and recommit to its sustainability targets. One of the likely outcomes that will aid this effort is airlines making moves to permanently retire less fuel-efficient aircraft. However, if we are to keep up this momentum, global governments must provide additional incentives, clearer guidance, and invest more in green technology for aviation, including the modernization of air traffic networks.

“For example, our Iris program with the European Space Agency will play a crucial role in driving progress in this area. Iris will bring the capacity and performance of satellite technology, which over the past years, has revolutionized air traffic management over the oceans, to Europe’s domestic airspace.  It will play a major role in allowing Europe’s busy airspace to be managed more efficiently, which results in lower carbon emissions and fewer delays.”

Inmarsat IRIS
Initiatives like Inmarsat’s IRIS could make it easier for airlines to drive down CO2. Photo: Inmarsat

We asked the same question to Michael Gill. Michael is executive director of the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), the only global association that represents all sectors of the air transport industry. He told us,

“I believe that after some short-term delay, as the industry focuses on survival and recovery, the crisis will have a positive impact on progress towards our long-term climate action ambition. The restrictions on travel and the resulting drop in air traffic have focused everyone’s minds on our need for a safe, secure and sustainable air transport system, supporting jobs and GDP across the global economy.

“The industry is as committed to a sustainable future as it has ever been, and I think that you will see efforts from the industry redoubled as we emerge from the crisis. One good example of this is work going on across the sector at this time (while traffic has reduced so significantly) on improving air traffic management methods, looking for ways to improve flight planning and reduce fuel burn – in other words – the search for the “perfect flight.” The lessons learned will be deployed once traffic gets back to normal levels; this requires collaboration across the sector, from airlines, airports, ANSPs, and manufacturers.”

KLM Biofuel
ATAG believes the ‘perfect flight’ will still be high on the agenda. Photo: KLM

Why were responses so split?

With such positivity from some of the most in-touch brains in the industry, the question remains, why did the results show such a dramatic split? If the feeling in the wider industry is that COVID won’t stop progress on sustainability, why were so many responses negative? We asked this question to both John and Michael. John Broughton said,

“While sustainability has been at the heart of international discussions around bailout terms, it is clear that there are concerns a global recession may potentially threaten investment in green technology, indeed any form of investment in the industry in the short term.

“In the longer term, however, the trends in passenger growth and flight hours will resume, and the underlying forces, including regulation, driving the intense focus from the airline industry on reducing its carbon footprint have not changed. The long-term health of the industry remains dependent on an effective strategy towards sharply reduced carbon emissions.”

Why COVID Won’t Set Back Aviation’s Sustainability Goals
Carbon reduction remains key to the long term health of the industry. Photo: NASA

ATAG executive director Michael Gill told us how, despite a survey split, the important thing is that the industry is still working as a team. He said,

“The important point is that the industry is not split on the need for aviation to address its climate impact! However, we are a global industry, with members from the different sectors all having different business models, serving economies that are at different levels of economic development and countries that have been hit by the COVID pandemic in different ways.

“So it does not surprise me that there is not a common view at this time on the pace of progress towards our emissions reduction targets, but I have not heard from anyone in the sector that the commitment to the long term objectives that the industry put in place over ten years ago has diminished in any way.”

United eco skies
Sustainability is still a team effort. Photo: United Airlines

What about the airlines?

Of course, key to delivering on sustainability goals are the airlines themselves. While regulation, advice and support will help, it can only go so far. Simple Flying approached a number of airlines to see what their take was on the impact of COVID on their sustainability plans.

Sustainability remains fundamental to JetBlue’s future strategy. Photo: JetBlue

Unsurprisingly, a rapid response was received from two of the airlines best known for their endeavors in sustainable action. JetBlue previously said that COVID wouldn’t affect the airline’s ambitious sustainability plans, and reconfirmed this today telling us,

“Air travel connects people and cultures and supports a global economy, which is why environmental social governance is part of our overall business strategy. JetBlue’s long-term plan ensures a more sustainable business for our crewmembers, customers, shareholders and communities.

“As the coronavirus crisis continues to significantly impact our business and society, now more than ever, we must move forward with our work to reduce emissions and minimize our overall impact. We remain committed to mitigating climate risk through investments in fuel-saving technologies and aircraft, as well as advocating for air traffic control modernization, carbon offsetting and sustainable aviation fuel to reduce emissions from flying. As our industry gets back on its feet, our long-term strategy and commitment stands. A healthy environment is more than a nice goal—it’s crucial for our business.”

Delta A350
Delta says sustainability remains important. Photo: Delta Air Lines

This sentiment was echoed nicely, although not quite so eloquently, by Delta Air Lines, who told us,

“The need to reduce and remove carbon from our environment is a long-term challenge that will remain long after COVID-19 is solved for. That’s why Delta remains committed to becoming carbon neutral globally.”

We would anticipate a similar level of commitment from a number of airlines. Indeed, even those who have not had their bailouts marked with carbon reduction goals have mooted a commitment to maintaining their targets. That’s good news for the future of the planet, the industry and, of course, the airlines’ bottom lines.

A long way to go

While a vote of no confidence from industry professionals is never a positive sign, it’s important to realize that this was hardly a majority vote. The small sample size and relatively even split just goes to show how uncertain things are in the current climate.

With airlines clearly committed to driving down both costs and CO2, the only challenge remains in how to achieve these goals. Retiring older aircraft has met one aspect of this, but there’s a huge mountain still to climb to get to a climate-friendly aviation future.

Inmarsat network
Connectivity and the digitization of the industry could help aviation recover faster and stronger. Photo: Inmarsat

Philip Balaam, president at Inmarsat Aviation, told Simple Flying how he believes that this climb can be made all the easier with the digitization of the industry.

“We cannot afford to let sustainability fall to the bottom of our agenda. Digital technologies can not only facilitate a rapid transformation towards a more sustainable future but also offer commercial benefits to airlines and their passengers. Combining real-time connectivity with big data can reduce energy wastage by unlocking efficiencies and reducing operational disruptions, therefore creating savings and revenue opportunities.” 

What do you think about sustainability? Has COVID created an opportunity, or has it set us back? Let us know in the comments.