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San Diego Airport Inspires Flyers to Pony Up for Offsets


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TerraPass is working closely with The Good Traveler and San Diego Airport on a pilot program to engage travelers to take responsibility for their impact during air travel. We are happy to share their story.

By Paul Manasjan, San Diego County Regional Airport Authority

The Boy Scouts of America and Lao Tzu, the 6th Century Chinese philosopher and father of Taoism, agreed on at least one thing: “The good traveler leaves no trace (or tracks).”   In a world with loved ones and business colleagues spread around the globe, it’s hard to avoid flying, but it’s still important to apply those principals.

Transportation is second only to electricity generation in the emissions of CO2 according to EPA figures published in April of this year. While air travel is only six percent of the carbon footprint from transportation, for those of us that fly regularly that percentage can be a lot higher.

Realistically, it’s unlikely that our flights will be subject to a carbon tax here in the U.S. anytime soon, so the decision to purchase a carbon offset when you fly is likely to be an individual one. Less than one percent of us purchase carbon offsets for our flights on a regular basis.

That said, it is still possible to make our core product -- air travel -- more sustainable.

In Australia JetStar, the regional arm of Qantas, over ten percent of its passengers purchase carbon offsets, with much higher numbers on shorter routes where the cost of offsetting is lowest.

Earlier this year, we commissioned a survey of a thousand Californian travelers’ attitudes to climate change and their willingness to pay up to $9 to offset the environmental impact of their journey. Nine dollars will purchase carbon offsets that would support improved forest management projects and additional alternative energy production to offset the greenhouse gas equivalents from a cross-country flight.   The findings were very surprising.

Seventy-three percent of Californians surveyed confirmed that climate change is occurring and that humans are a significant factor. Only seven percent of respondents believed it wasn’t happening.


The second surprise was that even more people, 78 percent of them, were willing to pay up to $9 if there was an effective way of eliminating the environmental impact of their flight.


You can see the full details from the survey at www.thegoodtraveler.org/#blog.

The survey results were a cause for optimism, but also raised an important question: If 78 percent of people are willing to pay to offset the impact of their flight, why are fewer than one percent doing so?

It comes down to three major factors: convenience, affordability, and “meaningfulness.” For the purchase of an offset to be meaningful, people needed to be educated and informed about where their money was going. Those projects needed to be inspiring and people needed to be confident this was an effective investment in solving the sustainability problem.

One of most significant learnings from our pilot was the importance of local projects -- people need to feel connected to what we are doing. While the climate change impact of greenhouse gas reductions is a global phenomenon, supporters were a lot more motivated when we discussed our plans for forestry projects they might be able to see first hand. We chose an improved forest management project in Arcata Community Forest, 800 miles north of San Diego, but people wanted something even closer to our city. As a result we are working to identify projects with local social benefits that will create jobs in San Diego and reduce the power bills for local low-income families. As The Good Traveler is deployed, identifying these projects and managing the economics that relates to smaller initiatives will be an important part of localizing what we hope will be a universal idea.

The next question we had to answer was whether an airport could bridge the gap between peoples’ desire to fly green and their actual behavior.   Was some other organization better placed, more willing and able to own this? To answer that question, we purchased a large supply of coffee and Post-It notes and locked ourselves for hours in a room with people from different functions in the airport.

When we emerged, blinking in the daylight, we answered, “Yes.” Airports are an incredible hub of people, planes, trains, automobiles, tourist destinations, non-profits, and local businesses. We have a rich array of customer touch points and communication channels, with hooks into digital displays, billboards, mobile apps, WiFi access points, web sites, ticket printing, kiosks, and retail concessions, whose staff talk to lots of passengers every day. For example, San Diego International Airport hosts 18 million passengers a year.

Some of the keys to success the team identified were simplicity, branding, and scale.   The Good Traveler brand was created and trademarked to enable the environmental message to be simplified and shared with other airports and travel-related businesses. It turns out that most businesses have some involvement with travel. When you take off from one airport, you generally land at another one. If a passenger sees The Good Traveler brand when they take off and they see it when they land, we have a better chance to convey our environmental message and break through the noise.

Most travelers rely on wireless access for their laptop, tablet, or phone. We thought it made sense to add the opportunity to purchase a carbon offset to the portal where everyone has to log-on to get his or her free WiFi. When you visit our airport and log-on, we present two buttons that both take you to a page where you can do that.


One of the pieces of feedback we received from a traveler who had bought an offset once and never done it again. He felt he hadn’t got anything for his money. No thank you or acknowledgement.

This fired our imagination with ways we could use “gamification” in a mobile app to track peoples’ footprint, their offset purchases, and to offer them badges and awards to share with their friends via social media to give them a sense of achievement. However, we wanted to start simple. Developing a successful mobile app is like becoming a movie star. Many people want to do it, but few people succeed. The large proportion of handsome car valets and waitresses in LA reminds us of that. So we thought we would defer that approach until having gained more momentum and start with a viral technology that predates the smartphone … the sticker.

Stickers can help to distinguish one black bag from another, they can tell a story about where we have been, and the kind of person we are. A Good Traveler sticker or tag, costs a dollar, and it offsets the greenhouse gas emissions produced by 500 miles of flying with funds going to three projects through TerraPass - Arcata Community Forest, the Big Smile Wind Farm, as well as a water restoration project in the Colorado Delta.

Merchants inside the airport and out can purchase these tags in bulk from TerraPass, our licensed partner for the pilot of this program, so that travelers can buy a tag along with their coffee, newspaper, or meal while waiting for their plane. We changed our bylaws and worked with our merchants in order to allow 100% of the revenue from sales to go to the offset.

Our first experience with selling the tags was at Art Walk, a community art festival held near the airport. People attending were expecting to purchase art not offsets, so we were delighted when two-thirds of the people that visited our booth there and asked, “What is The Good Traveler?” went on to buy one or more tags to offset their future travel.

Each tag design is given a unique number and we hope that they will become collectible souvenirs of peoples’ travel experiences, a little more compact than bringing back a Starbucks mug from each place you visit.

We have already started to talk to San Diego businesses and travel destinations about co-branding and selling tags. We expect to announce the participation of our first hotel resort and an innovative small business, which will be offering tags to their customers to offset the carbon from the visits to their offices.

Our first airport concession will be Ryan Brothers’ Coffee, a local San Diego institution that has been selling organic and fair-trade coffee for decades and has a presence in both our terminals (pre-security – so you don’t have to fly to buy their brews). Starting in September, you will be able to buy a tall non-fat latte, with a Good Traveler Carbon Offset on the side.

The Good Traveler leaves no trace, but can still bring home some great memories of their visit.


Paul Manasjan is Environmental Affairs Director for the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, which owns and operates San Diego International Airport (SDIA).

SDIA was the first major airport in the nation to adopt a formal sustainability policy, pledging to be a role model for sustainability in the industry. It was the first U.S. airport to sign the Climate Declaration, a call to action that urges federal and state policymakers to seize the economic opportunity of addressing climate change.  In 2014, SDIA was awarded Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certification for The Green Build expansion at Terminal 2 from the U.S. Green Building Council, making SDIA home to the first LEED Platinum-certified commercial airport terminal in the world.

Images 1,3 copyright San Diego County Regional Health Authority, Images 2, 4 copyright Good Traveller. Used with permission. 

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