News Analysis: Airlines talk green to pacify critics

Airlines' environmental impact is increasingly under the microscope. Robyn Lewis assesses how they are fighting their corner and explaining their green strategies to passengers, government and environmental NGOs.

Airlines are coming under growing pressure to tackle their impact on the environment. With air-passenger traffic set to more than double in the next 25 years to around 450 million passengers a year, it is not just the environmental lobby that is interested in taking the aviation industry to task.

The Conservative Party's ‘quality of life policy group' argued last week that people should ‘pay the price' for cheap flights; London Mayor Ken Livingstone has suggested a levy of £15 be slapped onto airline tickets as ‘aviation has got to be brought right to the centre of this [environmental] debate'; and, of course, the PR king himself, Sir ­Richard Branson, has weighed in, last month pledging to invest profits from Virgin's travel businesses into renew­able-energy initiatives over the next decade.

‘Huge' pressure
‘I think the pressure for airlines on this issue is huge,' says Financial Times aerospace correspondent Kevin Done. ‘It has become a fashionable target for the environmental lobby and the growth in consumer concern over green issues is rapidly increasing.

‘Look at the way people today buy organic food or the way they look at water-saving facilities when they  purchase a washing machine or dish­washer. Given these trends it can only be a very short time indeed before consumers start looking at similar credentials for airlines when buying flights.'

The aviation industry is clearly an easy target. When environmentalists argue that greenhouse-gas emissions from aircraft have been rising for more than a decade - and that they could take up the UK's entire quota for carbon emissions if left unchecked - taking a flight to either Birmingham or the Bahamas suddenly seems like a wanton luxury.

So what has been the response from the airlines? It has certainly not been consistent, with responses ranging from Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary suggesting with characteristic controversy that if people care about CO2 emissions they would be better off slaughtering cows; to British Airways offering passengers the option to donate to tree-planting schemes in order to ‘offset' the damage their journey may have done.

EasyJet has unveiled plans - by setting up a ‘political-style' rapid­-response unit - to go on the offensive against criticism of airlines' environmental record. It was a move welcomed by the European Low Fares Airline Association (PRWeek, 30 June).

But Ian Taylor, aviation reporter at Travel Weekly, argues: ‘The problem is that the airlines really haven't managed to get their message out there yet.'

Struggle to get message across
Taylor explains: ‘In reality most ­estimates only put flying's con­tribution to emissions at around two or three per cent of the global total. Many will point out that road transport or the agricultural industry contribute a lot more in the way of harmful ­emissions, and the new aircraft being built are a lot less ­damaging to the environment.

‘But so far I wouldn't say that airlines have got this message across to consumers at all.'

We asked two airlines (one short and one longhaul) how green issues are shaping their communications policy:

Peter SHERRARD, head of comms, RYANAIR

Is your firm ‘greener' than other airlines?
‘Ryanair's steady growth is being achieved in the most environmentally friendly and sustainable way by investing in the latest aircraft and engine technologies (which have reduced fuel burn and CO2 emissions by 45 per cent over the past eight years). Meanwhile, there has been the implementation of certain operational and commercial decisions that help to further minimise environmental impacts (by an additional seven per cent between 1998 and 2006). Ryanair is currently the airline industry leader in terms of environmental efficiency and it is constantly striving towards further improving its performance in this regard.'

To what extent has criticism of your fuel emissions become a threat to your reputation?
‘It hasn't.'

What comms work are you doing to promote your green credentials?
‘We have produced some literature that provides facts for journalists and public affairs purposes. This clearly sets out Ryanair's performance in this area.'

What PA work are you doing to promote your green credentials?
‘Everything in this area is done through the European Low Fares Airline Association. We are opposed to any form of environmental taxation, as such measures have failed to have any effect on emissions. We prove air transport can be environ­mentally friendly and deliver huge economic benefits, and that is a message we are keen to deliver.'

Paul CHARLES, director of comms, VIRGIN ATLANTIC

Is your firm ‘greener' than other airlines?
‘We have set out a series of initiatives in recent weeks, including Richard's £1.6bn commit­ment to investing in renewable energy and measures to dramatically cut CO2 emissions. We will announce other measures in the coming months.'

To what extent has criticism of your fuel emissions become a threat to your reputation?
‘The airline industry has been too slow to react to the impact it has on global warming. From the feedback we've had, many passengers are delighted that we've started tackling climate change.'

What comms work are you doing to promote your green credentials?
‘We've held a series of press conferences and internal briefings, and have produced video footage and stills to illustrate to journalists our new positioning. One of our daily flights is often queuing to take off from JFK for 70 minutes. The captain of a recent flight - which contained journalists - announced over the PA system that he was shutting down an engine to save a tonne of fuel and that JFK Airport should introduce our "starting grid" concept. We've also had a satellite link-up in a press conference with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is tackling climate change via legislation.'

What PA work are you doing to promote your green credentials?
‘We are setting up an industry forum due to meet in a few weeks. We are in constant dialogue with politicians and other stakeholders, including Forum For The Future and BAA.'

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