Airline bosses sought to defend their business against a rising tide of criticism over aircraft emissions as an upswell of activism threatens to overwhelm the industry before it can mount an effective response.
The heads of carriers including Emirates, JetBlue Airways and EasyJet, speaking at the World Aviation Festival in London, warned that reducing carbon emissions would take years, if not decades, given the limitations of current technology and expansion of air travel to an ever-wider slice of the global population.
They also objected to punitive measures they maintain would be counter-productive or unintentionally hurt those who couldn’t afford additional costs.
While carriers are taking action to cut carbon emissions and mitigate the impact of flying, significant advances such as electric or hybrid jets are decades away from commercial flight, Emirates president Tim Clark told the audience at a standing-room-only session on Thursday.
“Let us not kid ourselves that the Holy Grail is going to come overnight,” Clark said. “In the next couple of decades we might see some short-haul aircraft, but with long-haul it’s much more difficult to do.”
Activists from Extinction Rebellion targeted the event, handing out leaflets and leading small protests outside on Wednesday and Thursday. The demonstrators are part of the growing “Flight Shaming” movement that’s already dented air travel in Scandinavia. Formulating a quick response is particularly challenging for airlines, which rely on long development cycles for aircraft that can stay in service for decades.
“Be careful about over-promising,” Clark said, adding that he understands if customers ask airlines about their environmental priorities. “The automotive industry is well ahead, but then cars don’t fly.”
Airlines put out close to 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, and regulators around the world are considering levying taxes on carriers to reduce the number of people flying. Some people have begun to shun air travel for alternatives ranging from rail to videoconferencing, or just staying home.
Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, who’s inspired a global movement of so-called climate strikes, just crossed the Atlantic by sailboat to attend a United Nations climate summit in New York.
“Twenty years from now, I want to tell my kids and grandkids that I truly tried my best to change things,” said Lola Perrin, a piano teacher and Extinction Rebellion volunteer, who said she stopped flying years ago. “We have a global problem and we all need to come together to solve it.”
Alternatives to flying don’t exist in the US, where there are no high-speed rail networks, JetBlue chief operating officer Joanna Geraghty said in an interview. The low-cost carrier is switching to newer, more efficient Airbus A220 aircraft which consume 40 percent less fuel than the outgoing Embraer 190 jets, Geraghty said.
Geraghty also pushed back against criticism - some of it coming from older carriers such as Deutsche Lufthansa - that discounters are adding unnecessary flights with ultra-low costs. That perception has helped stoke moves to increase taxes on air fares or create minimums for prices.
Higher taxes will also reduce the pool of funds to invest in modern technology required for cleaner airplanes, said EasyJet CEO Johan Lundgren. Still, he said, airlines recognize the need to act.
“There isn’t one single technology that’s going to solve this,” he said. “We need to be putting pressure on the manufacturers and only then will we have credibility with consumers and politicians.”