By Alex Macheras
In the aviation industry, we are used to expecting the unexpected. Delays, politics, weather — the industry remains vulnerable as a whole to these external factors. But even with this in mind, it seems we have entered truly a new territory as climate change debate heats up, whereby a major national airline is now discouraging people to fly. The flag carrier for The Netherlands, KLM, has launched a campaign asking people to fly less. The video and open letter from CEO Pieter Elbers asks: “Do you always have to meet face-to-face?” and “Could you take the train instead?”
The campaign hopes to encourage travellers and the aviation industry itself to consider the environmental impact of flying. It’s the first time a major airline — competing with nearby European airline giants such as Lufthansa, and British Airways — is actively asking passengers to reconsider booking a flight.
On one side, KLM’s new campaign is being branded as ‘lunacy’ — with many recognising that airlines have very little profit margins, meaning carriers must do all they can to ensure they’re winning passenger business. Henceforth, the very last thing an airline should be doing is discouraging a passenger from taking a flight. On the other side, KLM are being praised for putting the well-being of our planet above their financial results.
Personally speaking, I admire KLM’s bravery in asking passengers to reconsider. While I recognise that aviation and air travel is a vital tool in our connected world, and that 120,000 flights will take off, carrying 12mn passengers and $18bn worth of trade just today, I think there will be an element to KLM’s new campaign that will be deemed as relatable by many employees who have ever encountered the following situation: it could have been a skype call. In a world where we’re all more connected than ever before, perhaps we should be reconsidering some flights that are unnecessary.
From a business perspective, this is a risky strategy. Yes, KLM will win the ethical business award, but will the airlines’ short-haul network be financially stable if all passengers decide to opt for European rail instead? It will take a large hit if the growing momentum continues, that’s for sure.
While air transport accounts for just 2% of global man-made CO2 emissions, this figure is likely to grow as the worldwide population continues to fly more each year. For now, 2% might not seem substantial enough to warrant any real change to our necessary flying requirements, but it’s worth pointing out that just one return flight from London to Sydney emits about 5 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), which is already half of what the average person’s annual carbon footprint should be.
KLM isn’t the only aviation stakeholder taking action. The declaration of a climate crisis has led France to announce the introduction of an eco-tax on tickets for all flights leaving the country. The new tax will range from €1.50 for short-haul and up to €18 for long-haul in premium classes.
IATA is supporting the KLM campaign. Rafael Schvartzman, IATA vice-president said: “We support it in the sense you do have a choice. In certain cases, you could use the alternative.” But, he added: “The UK is an island. If you want to trade globally, you will have to count on aviation.”
“Unchallenged, this sentiment will grow and spread,” Alexandre de Juniac, head of IATA recently told some 150 airline CEOs at the annual general meeting in South Korea when discussing the new threat ‘flight shaming’ poses to aviation growth.
Encouraging and expecting our airlines to be using sustainable alternative fuels, as well increasing the amount we carbon offset are steps we can take as passengers.
KLM’s CEO ended the new campaign by stating “We want to still be around when we have succeeded in our efforts to make aviation sustainable.” A powerful statement, demonstrating the seriousness of the climate crisis we are facing as a planet, and how aviation is truly under threat, which should be a concern to us all.
* The author is an aviation analyst. Twitter handle: @AlexInAir
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