Now is the time to focus on green initiatives

 - October 1, 2009, 5:52 AM

When an upstart airline like Virgin America starts using its environmental footprint as a selling point to consumers, it’s time for the legacy carriers–and everyone else who flies aircraft for a living–to sit up and take notice. Yes, Virgin America competitors: green sells. And green saves, too. There’s no longer any doubt that green is good for the corporate bottom line. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in global warming to know that fuel consumption is the biggest airline contributor to greenhouse gases and the biggest expense for the airlines. Reduce one and you reduce the other.

But addressing the carbon footprint is not only a competitive selling point or a way to save on costs. Most people think aviation has a disproportionate impact on global warming, that those greenhouse gases spewing into the upper atmosphere are much more dangerous than at ground level. So it’s no longer a fringe group of environmentalists applying pressure on aviation. Everyone from investors and shareholders to government regulators and passengers themselves are demanding environmental accountability from the airlines.

While Virgin America seems to be way out front on this issue (becoming the first airline to pledge to report its annual greenhouse gas emissions), a number of other airlines have begun to do something about the need to improve their carbon footprint. But what have they done in a systematic manner? It’s time for airline CEOs to take their heads out of the tarmac before they find themselves out of the competition for today’s environmentally savvy travelers.

In addition, government regulation is coming. While the current Administration hasn’t quite gotten its environmental act together yet, its platform promised world environmental leadership. (And you can bet that after eight years of the Bush Administration dismissing the global scientific consensus on global warming, the U.S. is anxious to prove its environmental bona fides to the world.) It’s not just U.S. regulatory bodies that U.S. airlines need to worry about. The European Union is way out front on emissions regulations, and anyone who flies to that part of the world must keep up with the requirements.

Aviation will probably be the first U.S. sector to feel the effects of emissions regulations if the EU emissions trading scheme goes into effect as planned in 2012. (Note to corporate flight departments: the EU ETS will apply to you, too.) And if you’re counting on this Administration protesting too loudly, think again because it’s not going to happen.

Airlines flying into the EU will have to cut their carbon emissions by 3 percent in 2012 and 5 percent each year thereafter. This is not an easy feat if the airlines don’t start doing something now to measure and reduce their CO2 emissions.
The pressure is on from investors and shareholders. They’re concerned about the sustainability of a company, and the environment plays a big role in corporate profits and liabilities, not the least of which will be future penalties from regulatory agencies.

There are a number of consultants out there advertising themselves as environmental experts ready to “help out” the aviation industry. But a number of airline executives I’ve spoken with are leery. They’re concerned about selecting a reputable company that can help them over the short and long term. Their concerns are two-fold: that the data collected accurately reflect the environmental footprint of its aviation operation; and that mitigation measures are safe for aviation. I’m concerned about those two issues–particularly the latter–myself. Deterring a future burning hole in the atmosphere by creating one in the ground today is not my idea of environmental stewardship.

As far as data collection goes, accurate measurement of emissions depends on
knowing how an airline actually operates and exactly how it consumes fuel and other resources. Companies that purport to measure an airline’s carbon footprint had better have aviation experts assisting them in baselining their data. Companies that measure your environmental footprint need to know in-flight and ground fuel management. (And it’s not just aircraft fuel management that will be important; fuel efficiency improvements on ground support equipment–such as choosing electric tugs–will also be critical to meeting future emissions reductions.)

Once you’ve measured your carbon or environmental footprint, you need to have a plan to mitigate or reduce it. Again, you need to make sure that the mitigation measures your airline or flight department puts in place are, in fact, safe. The much-touted continuous descent approach is a good example. While it offers tremendous promise for fuel-efficiency improvements, aircraft operators need to have a program in place to test and monitor the procedure before implementing it system-wide.

But there’s no need to panic. Help is out there. I’ve seen the presentation of a UK-based company that works with aviation professionals worldwide to ensure the accuracy of its emissions measurement criteria and airline-specific mitigation strategies. So let’s give Virgin America a little competition for its green. If the aviation industry shows its ability to take an environmental leadership role, who knows, maybe it will keep some of the more noxious regulations at bay.