Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Airlines Losing Climate Change PR Battle?

Depending on whom you ask, emissions from air travel make up 2-6 percent of the planet’s total CO2 emissions (as a whole, the transportation sector makes up about a quarter of those emissions). But airlines in particular have been getting a bad rap among some in the environmental community because of it, and a recent conference of European airline industries debated how to brighten their image.

One British strategic communications firm argued that the airline industry essentially needs a PR makeover. Steve Dunne of the Brighter Group went so far as to say that the industry risks sliding into a reputation akin to that of cigarette manufacturers in the U.S.:

"The aviation industry is just not representing itself properly or effectively to put the lobbying efforts of the eco-warriors into some kind of perspective.”

I’m not convinced the risk is that dramatic – at least here in the U.S. While there are certainly efficiency measures airlines should be considering – such as being towed to a starting point on the runway instead of burning fuel to get there – advocating a total ban on air travel as some do (or even very high taxes) is a losing cause (by the way, I want to hear a convincing argument as to why flying on a commercial plane isn’t public transportation, like taking the bus).

But the pollution problems for the industry could take off: The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that while the CO2 emissions per passenger kilometer have decreased, the increased number of passengers overall has negated that efficiency. Furthermore, the World Wildlife Fund predicts airlines to make up 15 percent of all global CO2 emissions by 2041.

So while the airlines may not be likened to cigarette manufacturers yet, they should consider some reputation management now. And there are good things happening: The International Air Transport Association says they saved 6 million tons of CO2 by shortening routes worldwide. Virgin’s Richard Branson just announced that he’s planning a 747 biofuel test flight for early next year, and Northwest put together a taskforce of employees and managers that came up with ways to cut inefficient fuel use by 31 million gallons per year. To keep up with the increasing number of passengers and the increasing concern about global warming (including carbon regulation), however, the airlines industry will have to continue decreasing their contribution to the problem and keep telling the public about it. Telling their side of the story - while performing real, meaningful leadership - will keep their reputation from taking a nose dive.

Cross posted on Green Options

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