“You take away air service, you take away the community”

THE dilemma the aviation industry is in was acutely captured at the CAPA Airlines In Transition Summit in Manchester last week. On the one hand, all are struggling to come out of the worst crisis ever, laden with massive debt and, on the other, having to contend with environmental and consumer pressure as well as concern over the war on Ukraine and its impact on, well, practically everything – human costs, fuel costs, world order and stability.

So on the one hand, you have airline executives on stage speaking about recovery and how well their routes are performing as well as their sustainability targets – everyone has set goals – and on the other, you have Cait Hewitt, policy director of the Aviation Environment Federation, declaring “the only solution is to fly less” and to “reduce longhaul flights”.

Cait Hewitt: The only solution is to fly less and reduce longhaul flights.

Hewitt said her organisation was fighting a couple of key campaigns – an aviation policy that aligns on net zero and challenging airport expansion. “We seem to have an insatiable appetite for growth and we should not be increasing airport capacity,” said Hewitt, who acts as an expert witness in airport planning cases. “We are calling on ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) to set a longterm plan.”

Joining her on the panel on “Mega Trend 1: Decarbonisation”, Piero Sierra, chief product officer, Skyscanner called her the “bravest person to speak at an airline conference”, and spoke of the recovery the online travel company was seeing. “Pre-pandemic, we had 100 million customers, we are back to 68 million. And they are mostly on mobile, at 74%.”

Plus, they are making greener choices, he said, with a majority “selecting our greener choices with a price premium”. “The challenge is to create normalised scores for aviation, hotels and tours and activities so consumers understand what they are buying, so everyone sees the same thing.”

IATA’s director fuel, Alexander Kuper, said fuel and SAF are now integrated into IATA’s new environment sustainability division and the airline community is committed to net zero by 2050. SAF (Sustainable Aviation Fuel) will be the main tool, he said, and it is expected that by 2038, there will be more SAF in use than normal fuel.

“To get aligned as a global organisation is a challenge but it can be done,” he said. “We need a global approach. If you look at regions such as Saudi Arabia that is looking to grow its air market (from 100 million to 330 million passengers by 2030), we cannot deny these regions their chance of developing.”

Jonathan Counsell, group head of sustainability, IAG said aviation was the only industry that had committed to net zero. “IAG made our commitment in October 2019, we have committed as an industry, now we must get ICAO commitment.”

And after the commitments, he said, “Now it’s about delivery. The pace of technology in the past three to five years has been nothing short of amazing and I’ve never been more optimistic than now in my 15 years in aviation.”

A big focus is SAF, he said. “We have 400,000 flights on SAF already and we can get to 10% by 2030 and remember, the first 10% is the hardest. Once we get past that, we will be well on our way and are looking at 60% by 2050.”

Christina Cassotis: “We all talk about what we are doing but no one is talking to the consumer.”

Christina Cassotis, CEO, Pittsburgh International Airport, which is the first airport in the world powered by solar energy – with close to 10,000 solar panels – and natural gas generated right on site, said delivery starts at the local level.

“We are the first airport off the grid,” she said, adding it was investing in proprietary technology to turn natural gas to blue hydrogen. “LNG should be considered as transition fuel while we make the investments in SAF,” she said.

There’s also of course the spectre of government regulation and taxation, she noted.

Saying the industry has a “massive messaging problem”,  she said, “We all talk about what we are doing but no one is talking to the consumer. Carbon calculators are like a diet counter, it doesn’t mean anything to the consumer. We can get there by focusing on what’s important to the people. We can ask, would you rather live in Pittsburgh today or Pittsburgh in 1948?”

Fact is, she said, “you take away air service, you take away the community,” and she added, “If we don’t earn the right to grow, we will not have the right to exist.”

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