Publicly stating that some of your company’s goods and services should be discontinued even if they are profitable probably would get most company executives in trouble. Rob Maruster, JetBlue’s Chief Operating Officer, startled an aviation conference when he thought out loud that there were better options for traveling between Boston and New York than the five flights his airline offers daily.
More companies and industries have shown growing interest in sustainability, but aviation is generally a laggard. In fairness, it is myopic to attack the industry for any perceived lack of interest in sustainability: the industry has had a rough decade between 9/11 and skyrocketing fuel costs. Furthermore, you can change the food you eat, lighting you use, building materials when remodeling your home, and walk or bike to the store, but if you are flying across an ocean, you do not have any other choices. While there have been some biofuel test flights, alternative fuels for airplanes are years away from being a viable option. So was Mr. Maruster sabotaging JetBlue with his off-hand remarks? Or is this a signal that the airline industry is becoming more conscious about its carbon footprint?
Perhaps neither. Short hops like LA-San Francisco, and the Boston-DC-New York triangle are not as profitable as they used to be. Times have changed from the 1960s, when Eastern Airlines used to sell tickets on board for its New York-Boston flights, promising another plane would be dragged out if the flight was full. Complex fee structures and TSA requirements have changed the nature of air ticket sales, and those Logan-JFK (or LaGuardia) shuttle trips are now barely profitable and are more about brand loyalty than profits. Airlines also make their money off lucrative international flights. So Maruster’s comments may be more about JetBlue’s strategy and rethinking of competing in a crowded market.
But Maruster also pointed out that rail would be a better option than air for those New York-Boston travelers. Airports are becoming more crowded, and on the Eastern Seaboard, there is no more room for additional air terminals. But just like idling your car or driving several short trips daily emits more carbon in the atmosphere, short flights are also more polluting: Maruster explained that a 150-mile Boston-New York flight requires the flying of 300 air miles. Perhaps that carbon would be better off spewed out for a New York-Los Angeles flight.
Long-distance transport needs a huge overhaul over the next several years. Amtrak has a decent track record on the DC-Boston corridor, but has lost money elsewhere in the country. High-speed rail projects are in the works, but these projects will take years until they are completed. An argument can be made that requiring companies in this space hire American workers on American soil—when American companies have little experience with such technologies—will add even more years until we can board that magical train between San Francisco and Los Angeles or Miami and Orlando.
Meanwhile, the cut-throat competitive nature of the airline industry makes me wonder if the aviation industry can ever be sustainable and truly “eco-friendly.” When I was at the GRI Conference, I was reminded of what the Director of Sustainability at KLM said about this industry’s challenge: a company can do everything it can to mitigate its carbon footprint, but when your competitor offers 9-Euro tickets to Barcelona for a weekend, one wonders if all the work put into sustainability and corporate social responsibility makes any difference.
That’s something to think about when you are tempted to fly away on a cheap ticket for a fun-filled weekend.