Flying responsibly

24 April 2019

Two airlines making headway with sustainability targets – Qantas and United – are profiled here as champions for the industry. Gillian Upton reports.

Originally published in Event Matters, ETM’s bi-annual event industry magazine.

The hospitality industry generates great quantities of waste and when it comes to its track record on sustainability, industry observers believe much more can be done. Airlines, hotels, apartments, venues, airports and cruise ships use an inordinate amount of planet unfriendly materials, be it in the shape of plastic straws, cups, laundry bags, teabags and plastic wrapping for pyjamas or amenity kit items, to tonnes of paper and, of course, in the generation of carbon from flying.

In a major environmental push, Qantas made a breakthrough announcement last month (February) of the most ambitious waste reduction target of any major airline globally. It plans to cut the amount of waste to landfill by 75% by the end of 2021. This replaces an earlier goal of 30% by 2020. Qantas has separate targets to achieve for fuel, water and electricity consumption, and the largest carbon offset scheme of any airline in the world.

To reach the new goal Qantas will remove over 100m single-use plastic items from flights and lounges by the end of 2020. It will also re-use, re-cycle and compost waste. Qantas and Jetstar generate more than 30,000 tonnes of waste in Australia each year – equivalent to 80 747 Jumbo jets – but Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce recognises that, “business had a responsibility to lead on environmental issues”.

The airline has already taken the initiative to remove plastic wrapping on pyjamas and headsets and no longer uses plastic straws. Qantas’ plastic Frequent Flyer cards are going digital too but the airline realised that there was a lot more that it could do in this area. In the next 12 months the airline will introduce coffee cups that can be recycled or composted, use alternative packaging to eliminate single-use plastics, digitalise all paper it can such as boarding passes and manuals, compost more food and recycle old uniforms.

It is also working with suppliers and other airlines to find practical alternatives to some single-use plastics, such as heat resistant containers for meal preparation. “Few industries can eradicate waste completely, but with this programme we’re saying that avoidable waste should no longer be an acceptable by-product of how we do business,” says Joyce. “This isn’t just the right thing to do,it is good for business and will put us ahead of legislative requirements in the various countries we operate in, where there is an end-date on various single-use plastics.”

The UK is one such country that has introduced legislation to reduce the use of plastic packaging. Introduced in October 2018, it introduces a tax on all plastic packaging that doesn’t include at least 30% recycled content. The UK government has a goal to eliminate all avoidable waste by 2042, which critics say is too far off. It seems that businesses are taking it upon themselves to do something sooner rather than later. The airline industry as a whole, for example, is working towards a 1.5% improvement of annual fuel efficiency by 2020, carbon neutral growth beginning in 2020 and a 50% reduction in airline CO2 emissions by 2050.

Another airline committed to sustainability is United Airlines, with programmes to reduce its footprint in the air, on the ground and at its facilities round the world. CEO Oscar Munoz sees it as an obligation to protect the plant for future generations and for such moves to “become the expectation for our industry, not the exception”. More fuel-efficient fleets have made a big impact already across the industry. At United it has allowed the airline to improve fuel efficiency by 45% since 1990, for example, while also investing in low-carbon, sustainable aviation fuel. For this United has been recognised as a Leading Airline by the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC).

United pilots shut down one engine and taxi on the other to save 5m gallons of fuel pa. Continuous descent approaches also saves fuel, as does towing aircraft between gates rather than taxiing aircraft. On the ground, the airline’s ground service vehicles run on alternative fuels or are electric and its buildings are energy efficient.

Ongoing is the drive by United for lighter-weight amenities on board to reduce fuel consumption and produce fewer emissions. Changes made in this area resulted in taking 30,000 metric tonnes of CO2 out of the air.

In 2017, United recycled over 18m pounds of cardboard, aluminium, plastic, paper and other materials. United donates used materials such as partially used soaps and pillow cases to be recycled for a new life. The airline’s old banner ads, for example, are upcycled into travel bags, while it has tried to green its supply chain too. For example, using illy coffee and Cowshed products in amenity kits.

According to Brita, 70% of hospitality companies are planning to reduce the use of single-use plastics while a statistic from WRAP highlights that 67% of UK consumers would boycott brands that lack an ethical conscience. It seems that sustainability is more than just a buzzword today but something that major travel companies are embracing as part of their long-term strategies.