Three Air France white airplanes at the airport, one in the air

The Big Fix

Can the pandemic encourage airlines to be greener?  

Climate advocates and economists say this moment of disruption in the airline industry is an opportunity to become greener.

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An Air France passenger jet takes off at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport in Roissy-en-France during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in France, May 19, 2020. 


Charles Platiau/Reuters

Almost no industry has been hit as hard as airlines during the pandemic, as travel bans and lockdowns encourage most of the world to cancel their vacations, family gatherings and work trips. 

Climate advocates and economists say this moment of disruption is an opportunity for the industry to fundamentally change itself to become greener — both from the inside, as well as with government support.

Related: Coronavirus has changed how we transport goods and ourselves

Globally, flights are down around 70%, according to OAG, a global travel data provider based in the United Kingdom. In key markets such as the United States, the number of passengers transiting through airports has fallen as much as 95%. 

Previously there have been dips in airline traffic, such as after 9/11 and during the Gulf War. But there is no precedent in the airline industry for what the world is seeing now, said Dan Rutherford, aviation director at the International Council on Green Transportation.

Beyond the immediate industry shock due to country lockdowns, there is no guarantee that people will go back to their normal flying routines for years, due to health and safety concerns, as well as newly adopted virtual alternatives for work trips, events and conferences.

Whether the recovery is fast or gradual, the airlines will not survive without government help, Rutherford said.

“The airlines are in essence saying that coronavirus is an existential threat to our business and governments should do everything they can to help alleviate the impacts."

Dan Rutherford, aviation director, International Council on Green Transportation

“The airlines are in essence saying that coronavirus is an existential threat to our business and governments should do everything they can to help alleviate the impacts,” he said.

Bailouts have already been doled out and more are being discussed. US airlines received $50 billion from Congress so far, and more than a dozen bailouts have been doled out in Europe and elsewhere — with more being discussed.

Related: Governments offer aid as airlines forced to deepen cuts to flights

The airline industry's recovery will certainly be rocky — and not all carriers will survive — but this could be a turning point for making airlines greener.

Government bailout money could be made conditional on sustainability measures. For example, in April, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire announced a $7.6 billion package made out of state-guaranteed bank loans and loans directly from the state to Air France — on the condition that it becomes “most environmentally-friendly airline.”

Conditions of Air France’s bailout package include drastically cutting emissions by 2030, as well as using 2% alternative fuels in its planes by 2025. For France’s domestic flights, emissions need to be halved in the next four years.

While France is the only country to create climate conditions for its bailout so far, other government leaders in Europe have floated the idea, such as the Austrian Environment minister, who said state aid for Lufthansa should support cutting their carbon footprint.

Climate leaders share this sentiment. 

“If an airline goes to national authorities and asks for support, I think it is legitimate to ask, ‘What are you going to do for society in return? Are you going to put a cap on bonuses? Are you going to stop paying dividends? Are you going to lower your carbon footprint?’” EU Climate Commissioner Frans Timmermans said Monday in a video call with EU lawmakers.

Related: Coronavirus will force innovation in airline industry, consultant says

An April study from the Australia Institute said that carbon emissions from flying are expected to be down 38 percent in 2020 due to lockdowns.

While addressing UK Parliament on Wednesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said airlines must keep emissions down to “entrench” the reductions seen during the pandemic.

“I don’t want to see us going back to an era of the same type of emissions as we’ve had in the past,” he said. “Aviation like every other sector must keep its carbon lower.”

Dozens of stimulus and bailout packages are being discussed currently around the world. All the while, airlines are lobbying for governments to put a hold on carbon taxes that they normally have to pay while the industry is in crisis mode. 

But aviation sustainability experts wonder if this moment can be a reset for an industry that has been growing exponentially for decades.

“The business model of airlines has really become one of a race to the bottom in mass transport rather than sort of improving the quality of the product,” said Susanne Becken, professor of sustainable tourism at Griffith University in Australia. This has made it so there’s little money to invest in the research and development needed to create more sustainable aviation technologies, she said. 

“You could argue the aviation market is highly inflated. There’s too much seat capacity that can only be filled by making tickets really cheap. And that doesn't leave any margin for innovation and future-proofing.”

Susanne Becken, professor of sustainable tourism

“You could argue the aviation market is highly inflated. There’s too much seat capacity that can only be filled by making tickets really cheap,” said Becken. “And that doesn't leave any margin for innovation and future-proofing.”

Becken said the pandemic may mean the end of the ‘race to the bottom’ business model which relies on constant growth in ridership. While the industry rebounds, she said, bailout money could be spent on re-imagining the business model and reorient towards sustainability goals.

Rutherford agrees. He said Bailout money could be spent to both make conditions of airlines, and also set up lasting changes, like retiring inefficient planes and technologies.

Some in the industry are already on board. The CEO of Airbus has asked the French government to use stimulus money to support their efforts to develop more environmentally friendly planes. 

Bailout money could also be spent kickstarting funds for research and development of low-carbon engines and fuels — such as an “Apollo-style research and development program to develop advanced aircraft engines and low carbon fuels that will need over the long run,” Rutherford said. Research funding could be sustained in the long-run using fuel levies or carbon taxes.

“Fundamentally, this industry has been growing so fast that it's been really difficult to reconcile with our climate responsibilities,” Rutherford said. “We will see where we go from here. But I do think that environmental conditions for these public bailouts could be part of the solution.”

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