August 31, 2022

Here’s another watch-out for airlines when running campaigns that talk about being ‘carbon neutral’.

Austrian Airlines was on the receiving end of a complaint around ads promoting flights from Vienna to Venice at the time of the Biennale festival.

These gave the passenger the option of offsetting flights with the purchase of SAF and receiving free public transport tickets and entrance to the Biennale in exchange.

The complaint made by an academic and climate change activist to the Austrian advertising regulator, (English original version here) said that Austrian’s SAF comes from biofuels, which aren’t 100% carbon neutral, instead, there is likely to be an 80% reduction.

The complaint went on to say:

“The consumer doesn’t understand a) what SAF is; b) what the net saving potential of SAF is, and c) what 100% SAF means. Therefore, the average consumer might easily think that he/she is able to ‘fix’ aviation’s climate problem by purchasing SAF.

“This is what the message ‘fly carbon neutral already today’ suggests. It’s deeply misleading. In fact, it’s clever accounting that simply isn’t good enough to justify the use of claims such as ‘fly carbon neutral today’.”

The ad regulator agreed with the claim that an 80% reduction was not carbon-neutral flying.

The regulator further criticised Austrian for using terms “not familiar to the average consumer, not explained in detail and could therefore be misunderstood”.

Austrian was asked to “be more sensitive in its design and more precise in its wording” of ads.

In response, Austrian said it took note of the findings but said it doesn’t claim that SAF eliminates all climate-related problems. It also stated that in the booking process, it is “indeed possible for customers to design their own journey in a CO2-neutral way.”

So what’s the take-out for airlines?

Every sustainable aviation solution, almost without fail, is met with two objections. It’s not practical / won’t work / too expensive. SAF gets that to a certain extent, especially with cost.

Then there’s the objection from climate change activists. They claim that the solution in question is just a ploy by big aviation to carry on with business as usual.

That point in particular gets to the heart of what most climate activists want. They don’t want tech fixes. In their view, the only solution to the climate emergency is to stop a lot of flying.

KLM of course is also facing action in the Netherlands over advertising. One of the claims by activists here is that the airline can’t be climate-friendly as it wants to grow.

As a result, care needs to be taken when using terms like ‘carbon neutral’ or ‘climate neutral’. These are absolute terms that can and will be challenged.

Better to work with aspirational terms like sustainable, lower footprint, more responsible flying, better for the climate, and so on.

At the same time, as we’ve said in previous newsletters and reports, the growth argument also needs to be tackled head-on, with proactive campaigns from the industry about why flying is a good thing in terms of benefitting cultures, societies, and economic development.

Ideally, messaging around ‘sustainability’ and ‘aviation is a force for good’ should be run in tandem.

Finally, the Austrian advertising regulator is right about one thing. Most consumers almost certainly have no idea what SAF is.

The way a lot of SAF is made is actually pretty interesting and would capture consumers’ imaginations.

For example, you can now turn household trash into SAF (Fulcrum BioEnergy does this). You can even produce solar jet fuel, see Synhelion, which has worked with Austrian’s parent, the Lufthansa Group.

Those are consumer-friendly stories and many airlines are missing a trick by not amplifying them more and bringing SAF to life.

(Top image via Austrian Airlines)

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