Interviews with 10 airline sustainability leaders

By Shubhodeep Pal / January 19, 2023

Our new “Flying to Net Zero” report features in-depth interviews with ten airline leaders on their approaches to various airline sustainability strategies. Download the full report here.

As the world hurtles towards a climate crisis, the need to decarbonise quickly and effectively has taken centre stage. Travel – specifically aviation – is in the crosshairs for its outsize contribution to global CO2 emissions.

While the industry might argue that it accounts for “only about 3%” of emissions, context is key: 1% of the world’s population accounts for more than half of flying emissions. As a result, climate activists have grown ever more vociferous in their opposition to flying in general: from flight-shaming campaigns to complaints about greenwashing to glueing hands to the runway and protesting at airports

The good news, however, is that the industry recognises the need for swift course correction.  The aviation industry has adopted the goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

In October, the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) led two weeks of negotiations involving 184 nations to agree on CO2 emissions reduction measures. These include ramping up innovative aircraft technologies, “streamlining” flight operations and the increased production and use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). (See more in this World Economic Forum overview.)

While there is a reason for optimism, there are certain tough pills one must swallow.

Progress, in aviation specifically, is likely to be slow and laboured. Due to its sheer nature (no easy electric replacements such as in the automotive or rail industries), aviation will chart a complex path to decarbonisation.

In recognition of this complexity, we spoke to ten airline sustainability leaders to understand how they are moving towards the 2050 net-zero target. Our special report illuminates the various pathways to sustainability these airlines are adopting.

airline sustainability leaders

Featuring: Etihad Airways, JetBlue, British Airways, easyJet, Alaska Airlines, Ryanair, Aeromexico, Avianca, SriLankan Airlines and Saudia.

Overall, there are five thematic issues that almost all airline sustainability leaders accept and recognise.

First, they admit that the challenge is much tougher than in almost every other industry since the only effective solution is likely to be a new kind of emission-less plane that might be decades away. 

Second, they recognise Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) as the likely saviour. Almost all airlines want more of it. However, supply and price appear to be insurmountable challenges in the near future. 

Third, while airlines may be at different stages of their sustainability journey, they understand that – for once – going green is not merely a competitive differentiator but a societal good that the industry must cooperate towards. 

Fourth, economic viability will remain a major concern (see the issues with SAF, for example). If it comes to a choice between reducing carbon emissions at a high cost and staying afloat, airlines will understandably choose the latter. This should neither surprise nor irk anyone. Hundreds of thousands of livelihoods depend on the industry. It cannot be shut down or wished away. Rapid technological investment and large-scale cooperation is the only way forward.

Fifth, airlines are awakening to the reality that sustainability efforts, knowledge and consciousness must permeate through the entire organisation. The right momentum for change arises when there is complete buy-in and support at all tiers of the company.

We are also delighted that so many women are leading sustainability efforts. In fact, six of the ten leaders we interviewed are women with deep experience in and passion for sustainability.

We hope you enjoy this deep dive into various sustainability strategies, straight from the leaders who are bringing in change. Get the full report here.

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