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Does One Green Plane Make an Airline Sustainable?

Presidio Marketing | Wednesday April 6th, 2011 | 1 Comment

This post is part of a blogging series by marketing students at the Presidio Graduate School’s MBA program. You can follow along here.

By Matthew Dieden

Who loves to fly anymore?  The thought of crowded airports, canceled flights, endless security lines, and those surly gate agents and flight attendants can put a knot in the pit of your stomach just thinking about your next trip home for the holidays.  And who wants to start a relaxing vacation like that?  Lately, I think of preparing for battle when I head to an airport.

I do love to fly, however, perhaps more than most people.  When I was a kid, my dad would take me to LAX just so I could watch commercial airliners take off and land.  I also have a passion for sustainability, and believe strongly that people and planet are as criticalas profit to running a successful business.  This naturally led me to explore what airlines are doing to value people and the planet while making a profit.

As is turns out, it’s a challenge to turn a profit running an airline.  In the last decade, several of the largest US carriers have filed for bankruptcy, including Untied, Delta, Northwest and US Airways (twice).  The answer to running an airline sustainably for these large US carriers seems focusedon initiatives that directly impact the bottom line in aircraft operations.  Airlines are working to achieve the high levels of fuel efficiency while reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.   Even Southwest Airlines, the only US carrier to rank among the world’s most profitable airlines, launched a “Green Plane” as a centerpiece of its marketing campaign to symbolize its commitment to sustainability. A single green plane.  Really?  Really!

While these measures have potential to cut greenhouse gas emissions significantly and save each airline millions of dollars, it is reasonable to question whether the impetus for action is to save the planet or to save the bottom line.  Airlines throw away enough aluminum cans to build 58 Boeing 747’s every year!  Delta and Virgin America get a B- grade, the highest of the airlines ranked.While American Airlines does little as a company in the area of recycling, its flight attendants organized an aluminum can recycling program to benefit charity.  These employees are making a difference for the planet and for other people.  Did American Airlines miss a golden opportunity to recognize dedicated employees, revamp its company-sponsored recycling program and let the world know about it?

Is there a reason we don’t hear more about airlines’ sustainability efforts?  Is it not sexy enough to fill seats?  We’re constantly barraged by ads touting low fares and excellent customer experience (really?), but we have to hunt for news of their efforts to better the planet, buried in websites or in annual reports.  Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the sustainability effort of the companies from which they buy.  Are airlines missing a real opportunity to tap into an area of concern for their passengers?


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  • Leilani

    Two great questions, which I would like to comment on!
    1. Is one Green Plane enough? Of course not, but if you study the efficiency in C02 consumption against the growth the commercial aviation industry has had over the last 20 years, and then look at their revenue (or C02 per revenue), you will see that it ends up being a relatively efficient industry, and one of the few that has successfully reduced it’s environmental footprint while growing exponentially. This isn’t to say that aviation doesn’t have a footprint, but at 3% of global GHGs, it’s right there with the IT industry. I also never question “intentions” around environmental efficiency, because I’m assuming mother nature doesn’t care WHY we doing less harmful things, just that we ARE!
    2. Are airlines missing a chance to engage with customers on sustainability? This is a GREAT question, and I would say that Virgin American (and the Virgin group in general) is one of the few and most focal in engaging with their customers. I am widely impressed with their approach – very jazzy and Virginny. And, I agree that airlines, like many other consumer-facing businesses absolutely have wide open opportunities to engage with customers on sustainability issues, from recycling to paperless boarding passes, weight management (yes, that big old bag people drag on makes their C02 emissions worse!!) and more.
    Thanks for the article!
    Leilani (and Presidio EC alumni)