It’s been another tough week for the UK travel industry, with the prospect of foreign travel this summer slipping away following the government’s U-turn over allowing quarantine-free trips to Portugal.
However, there’s reason for optimism as travel starts to rebound post-pandemic. We have now reached a tipping point when it comes to sustainable travel, with the UK airlines taking pole position. Greta Thunberg warned of the urgent need for action, refused to travel by air and created a movement of “flight-shaming”. Then Covid-19 came along.
The pandemic caused a surge of self-reflection on personal life choices, business meetings began to take place exclusively online. A report released by Booking.com found that 53 per cent of global travellers wanted “to travel more sustainably in the future as Coronavirus has opened their eyes to humans’ impact on the environment.”
The hassle of PCR testing is likely to remain for some time, driving leisure travellers towards fewer, but longer trips. Over the last 12 months, the average trip doubled from four to nine days, and McKinsey is forecasting a 20 per cent long-term reduction in business travel.
The rise of “work from anywhere” and “bleisure” will blur the lines between business and leisure, leading to trips being combined. This trend towards longer travel means fewer emissions, as travellers prioritise more meaningful experiences, less crowded beach and nature destinations and visiting loved ones.
In my recent speech at Stanford, I also predicted that air fares will become more expensive. Even as leisure demand comes back strongly toward the end of the year, it will take airlines at least three years to build back up to where they were before the pandemic, given their investment backlog and weakened balance sheets.
For example, British Airways-owner IAG reported a $9bn los in 2020, and it may need to monetise its slot portfolio or frequent flyer program if the summer recovery stalls. Higher air fares are also due to a change in competition and fleet. Some long-haul price disruptors have now given up the fight, for example Norwegian has ended transatlantic flying and Etihad has become a mid-size carrier rather than a mega-hub connector.
Most network carriers have drastically reduced their size and retired older, more fuel-inefficient four-engine aircraft. We are unlikely to ever fly on a Boeing 747 again as both BA and Virgin Atlantic retired their entire fleet, as well as all of their A340s. When the two UK carriers fully resume their current long-haul fleet, they will produce around 50 per cent less CO₂ than before the pandemic, which is a better improvement than any other major market, according to my analysis.
An industry shift towards these smaller intercontinental aircraft will also promote higher prices, as airlines will have fewer seats to fill. However, expect cheaper hotel rooms (especially in city centres) due to the imbalance of air and hotel capacity since few hotels permanently shut down and alternative accommodation such as Airbnb continue to grow every year. This combination of higher airfares and cheaper hotel rooms will also reinforce the trend towards fewer, longer trips.
The travel industry is preparing the path towards carbon neutrality through a combination of more fuel efficient aircraft, alternative fuels, new technology, carbon capture and carbon offsets. Climate action has now become a priority, with half of the world’s airlines announcing net-zero commitments in the last 12 months – with UK airlines setting the pace. EasyJet became the first airline to make all of its flights carbon neutral through offsets and British Airways-owner IAG has committed to powering 10 per cent of its flights with biofuel by 2030, ahead of peers.
This industry shift is being supported by governments. In Europe, government bailouts are being tied to reductions in emissions and bans on domestic flying. In the United States, the Biden administration has re-joined the Paris Climate Accord and included subsidies for the production of biofuels in the most recent $6tn budget, which will give a much needed kick-start to the development of sustainable aviation fuels. More transparency of emissions during the flight search phase is also on the horizon.
Sweden’s leading metasearch platform, Flygresor, was the first to show CO2 emissions data as part of the flight search process and Google is about to follow its lead. By displaying business class travel with around three times higher emissions as economy and fewer emissions for non-stop compared to connecting flights, travellers will be more informed about the environmental impact of their flight choices.
Frequent Traveller programs will also have to be reinvented post-Covid, with day trips and weekly commutes permanently reduced for many “road warriors”, due to the sustained use of remote working and video conferencing. Until now, most travel players have responded by extending elite status for an extra year to their frequent travellers. There is an opportunity for redesigned programs to support the environment by awarding status points for green decisions, such as buying carbon offsets.
Some may think United’s bold announcement last week, ordering 15 “net-zero carbon” supersonic aircraft from Boom, is also a sign of a new era in sustainable travel. But don’t get too excited just yet. Before purchase, Boom’s designed aircraft would have to meet challenging performance specifications, which are unproven. There are questions around the environmental and noise impact as well as the business case.
But there are promising new technologies under development, which focus on greener not faster aircrafts. For example, Surf Air Mobility is converting regional aircraft to hybrid electric propulsion and ZeroAvia is developing hydrogen-powered aircraft, with the support of British Airways and the UK government.
Whilst frustration continues due to the uncertainty over summer travel in the short-term, there is reason for optimism in the long-term. The UK’s aviation sector should be commended for becoming leaders on environmental sustainability during the worst crisis in aviation.
It is time for the UK to allow quarantine-free travel for vaccinated travellers in line with the EU, to enable airlines to fund their investments in sustainability.
Sadiq Gillani is a Lecturer at Stanford and Senior Vice President with Emirates. He is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Council for Sustainable Tourism
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