Travelers, airlines want sustainability; standards will help

Sustainability is rising to the forefront of travel planning for travelers around the world. A McKinsey survey found that 54% of respondents believe air travel should definitely become carbon neutral in the future, and a third cite CO2 emissions as a major concern. Already, many travelers are doing what they can, buying offsets and making choices based on the emissions information that is shared, somewhat haphazardly on airline and aggregator sites.

For their part, airlines are focused on three major initiatives in order to reduce the aviation industry’s footprint.

  • Minimize emissions;
  • Maximize sustainable aviation fuel (known as SAF);
  • Maximize offset (compensation) options to offset emissions.

The next step is to bring the information about these initiatives to travelers, not only to create awareness but to drive positive behaviors. Each of the three initiatives has potential but needs a collaborative approach across the industry to see real change.

Educate without greenwashing

Travelers want to make sustainable choices, and now is the time for airlines to provide education and information. Already, many airlines are starting to share sustainability attributes with shoppers on their website. For example, Lufthansa uses the “Universal Product Attribute” to explain its Green Fare; Etihad and Delta are using it to highlight their newer generation aircraft.

There is a lot for airlines to talk about, from their planned use of SAF to fleet upgrades and even business efficiencies such as distributing passengers to maximize capacity. In isolation, news about greener options feels very positive, but it’s important to provide context so consumers understand how impactful each element is against the big picture of total emissions.

Customers want sustainability information to make practical sense. For an airline operating an older aircraft on a specific route because it makes sense in terms of operational efficiency, explaining other actions they are considering to meet their 2050 goals gives a fuller picture. In another example, SAF is not always available for airlines, as it is still produced in limited quantities, but companies and consumers can purchase SAF credits, which will unlock the production of future SAF. Companies sign up to buy in bulk to offset their corporate travel and shipping while work is being done to help consumers opt to purchase SAF credits to offset their individual travel. It’s important for airlines to be able to convey this complexity to consumers so they make choices that propel the industry towards sustainability as quickly as possible.

ATPCO has done research to see the best approach to providing varied sustainability information to consumers and has found that clear data and data-driven visuals make a big difference. Consumers appreciate familiar icons and colors to denote sustainable information and a conversion scale that helps compare various types of sustainable choices that can be selected.

Comparing and contrasting

When it comes to helping consumers compare data, aggregators have the early advantage. For example, search for a flight from New York to Paris on Google Flights, and the CO2 emissions are not only shared for each option, Google adds a calculation to inform consumers if the emissions are average, better or worse than average. This gives consumers a baseline of comparison, but there are issues. Google’s methodology doesn’t translate to a specific airline website, and the calculations are not ideal as they use distance to calculate, which is not accurate enough.

For a consumer to feel empowered to make the smartest choice while shopping on a single airline, they would need to have context for the sustainability information in place and be able to compare confidently across sites with accurate calculations. That requires collaboration and standards. Airlines can contribute granular data and agree on one methodology to eliminate confusion for passengers who want to compare information. This is what consumers want — it is important to 62% of passengers that ATPCO has surveyed.


Airlines need to embrace the available standards and data to get an understanding of what works and what doesn’t and work collectively to agree on an evolution of those standards and data over time.

David Smith – ATPCO

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has released a new standard for Transport GHG emissions that can serve as a baseline for calculating emissions. IATA has a methodology for calculating emissions for a single passenger, which uses fuel-based calculations with primary data from airlines versus distance-based calculations, which provides a more accurate representation of the CO2 emissions results. Every site can use this data and methodology, creating a consistent experience for consumers.

Network economics factors in heavily — the increased value of using a consistent approach across a network, in this case, to sustainability. Translating this into a viable shopper experience requires a common utility across airlines so that consumers understand what they are getting at a standardized level. For example, a passenger may want to reduce the footprint of their first-class seat by selecting a vegetarian meal or purchasing SAF credits. A site would need to allow for these ancillary selections and recalculate the emissions and compare those emissions to some baseline for consumers to feel confident that their choice is the right one across airlines and their products.

Standards help downstream too

Standards are also important to help airlines keep track of sustainability data downstream. For example, understanding which customers purchase SAF credits on which flights and why will help airlines understand how to bundle and price sustainable flights in the future. SAF costs more than twice as much as today’s jet fuel, but many consumers would pay more if they were aware of the decrease in their carbon footprint. With downstream data, airlines can get smarter about this information faster.

Downstream sustainability data can also help integrate and reconcile the various data points for sustainability — such as sold flight emissions, fuel surcharges, taxes, customer offsets/SAF purchases, airline offsets/SAF purchases for analytics and reporting — for airlines and their corporate customers. For example, corporate procurement teams could make decisions about how much should be allocated to each carrier based on performance, including emissions.

The good news is that the airline industry has already committed to decarbonization by the middle of the century, and many groups are working to create the structure needed to support that goal. However, standards groups can’t do it alone. Airlines need to embrace the available standards and data to get an understanding of what works and what doesn’t and work collectively to agree on an evolution of those standards and data over time. Airlines are also critical to the customer experience conversation as they are on the front lines with travelers. No standards work if they don’t translate to a good customer experience.

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