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Keeping airline profits sustainable

Mellissa Flowerdew-Clarke
Mellissa Flowerdew-Clarke
Head of Marketing, EMEA
6 min read
9 December 2019

On the 14th April, 2019, Greta Thunberg left Stockholm. On the 16th, she arrived in Strasbourg and gave a speech to the European parliament. On the 17th, she arrived in Rome, met the Pope and spoke to the Italian senate. On the 21st, she reached London, protested with Extinction Rebellion and visited Westminster. On the 25th, her journey ended with a return to Stockholm. Two weeks of international travel, all by train. The flight shaming movement goes mainstream.

On the 14th August, 2019, Greta Thunberg left Plymouth on the Malizia yacht. 15 days later, on the 28th August, she arrived in New York to speak at the UN Climate Action Summit. A spokesperson announced that several people would be flying from Berlin to take the yacht back the Europe and the yacht’s co-skipper would be returning by plane. The flights would be offset. Even the figurehead of the flightshaming movement cannot avoid air travel.

The airline industry has entered a decade of disruption. The 20s begin with more focus than ever before on the environmental impact of travel – from carbon emissions to the effect of over-tourism on communities, to the minutiae of single use plastics. It can be tricky to get a handle on, but if there’s one thing we all know about industry disruption it’s that opportunities for sharp businesses sprout up.

To understand the shift occurring in the air travel category, think of the change we’re seeing around value and quality.

Value used to be simple. £30 return flights to a popular European city, a stripped back inflight experience on a cramped plane. It’s a little more complicated now. The stereotypical 18-30 traveller looking for a cheap getaway is now naming environmental impact as their number one challenge facing society, according to Deloitte’s 2019 Global Millennial Survey. Global Web Index found that over half of 18-55s would pay more for eco-friendly products. Value is not just the lowest cost to the consumer, it’s also the lowest cost to the environment. In the age of the conscious consumer, I always think Gandhi was almost right. It’s not be the change you want to see in the world, it’s buy the change.

We see this with airline quality perception too. British Airways have long been the staple brand of quality air travel. Their landmark announcement for the start of a new year is to offset all UK domestic flights, and offer an offset option for international travellers on their online booking form. This is quality shown through the form of inward looking business operations and an option to pay more to help the environment. It’s no wonder that BA are taking this approach as first class travel (typically double the carbon emissions) is falling.

What’s most interesting about this shift towards environmental business practices and brand ideals is that business weaknesses can be turned into brand virtues – the dream for any marketing department. EasyJet’s inflight experience hasn’t always had the best reputation, but now their aim to fill every seat and stringent checked bags policy have played a part in the budget airline projecting the lowest emissions in 2020 .

Our culture’s increasing focus on transparency means these corporate shifts are now fair game for campaigns. TTL campaigns will start reflecting this shift as businesses look for new rational and emotive reasons to believe in their brand.

Plastic use is a PR hungry topic – so many opportunities for brands to lead the industry on innovative replacements for single use plastics. Just look to Qantas’ work to eliminate single use plastics on flights and lounges. Capturing the public imagination in the process, the rational-emotive connection is clear. So too with the effect of over-tourism, brands can look to the personal stories of residents (human and non-human) of areas that are affected and ease in messaging around economic reports for the region.

It’s more difficult as we look to connect the numbers heavy world of carbon footprints and emissions to the emotive security of booking a flight and not worrying about the environment. It requires real nous, but it seems surefire that a brand will connect the relaxation of a white sandy beach with the comfort of knowing you’re paying to support that beach.

Away from topline campaign messaging, the semiotics of airline advertising is bound to change. Lonely Planet’s number one destination for 2020 is Bhutan, chosen for its low impact tourism and being the only carbon-negative country in the world.

Desirable destinations featured in supporting photography are a simple way of suggesting a brand’s commitment to sustainable travel, featuring cities that have committed to carbon neutrality like Ljubljana and York.

These small changes fit with the shift of what customers are looking for in a destination. We’ve already seen impressive work in the wider travel category like the Palau Pledge and the Faroe Islands closing for tourists, and consumer opinion backs it up, with over half of global travellers wanting to play a part in reducing the ‘over-tourism’ phenomenon and willing to swap their original destination for a lesser known but similar alternative if they knew that it would have less of an environmental impact.

What becomes clear in any discussion of sustainable practice is that we need to collectively consider every single stage of the travel experience. To this end, businesses can start looking at partnerships to cement their environmental credentials and create another contact point for the wave on conscious consumers. In terms of offsetting the effect of travel, a service like Austria’s SAMO Card, a €10 card that offers access to an array of eco-friendly travel options, would be an ideal partner for an airline looking to add extra value to their service as well as improve their reputation.

To offset the effect of increased tourism, look to initiatives like I Like Local and Impulse that are committed to making sure tourism adds money to the local community, rather than damaging it.

The sun is shining, it’s time to repair the roof. This is the ideal period for airlines to establish a sustainable identity, as green pressure mounts and eco-consumption becomes less about the status of opting in, and more about the shame of opting out. The other forms of travel are still far less convenient and far more expensive. There will be no better moment to make sure profits are sustainable.

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Executive Creative Director

Jake Welsh