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Communicating sustainability: what airlines can learn from the private jet industry

Sustainability - 6th February 2024
wind turbines at dawn – Unsplash image so no licence needed sized

I was delighted to hear that BAR UK – the Board of Airline Representatives in the UK – has put forward an initiative with IATA to create more concise and accessible sustainability communications assets for airlines. I was delighted because I know this will prove vital, given that sustainability is the defining reputational issue for commercial aviation of this and coming decades. My surprise was due to my having presumed such an essential resource must already exist.

This development is still unambiguously good news, given IATA members will benefit from the in-house expertise of the largest carriers, OEMs and trade associations, which have access to the data and initiatives that will support other airlines. All need to be able to issue confident statements and take meaningful action.

As part of this initiative, I would encourage IATA and its members to look to the private jet industry for an example of a communications strategy that builds a cogent case in the face of entrenched opposition.

Uniting around a common challenge

As an aviation PR and marketing specialist, our company has worked extensively with the private jet industry as well as with airlines and airports. It’s clear to us that – while some carriers have historically felt it convenient for private jets to be a target for emissions criticism – the common reputational threat faced means it is surely time for the entire aviation industry to pull together and share knowledge and best practice.

While airlines might justifiably feel they are not getting a fair hearing from sustainability critics, they are yet to face the hostility that business aviation has been contending with for many years. Private jets have long been portrayed by many as a scandalous indulgence for the elite. To compound matters, there is now valid criticism that per-seat emissions in a private jet are significantly higher than in a commercial airliner. However, the simple and emotive narrative that serves the naysayers well is inevitably selective, doesn’t acknowledge the need for unscheduled flight alternatives, and, as reported, tends to exaggerate the benefits that banning private jets would bring about.

Countering the critics

Countering such entrenched negative perceptions is an ongoing task and the job will never be ‘done’, particularly with the mainstream media, general public and climate activists.

Wisely, given its exclusive nature, the private jet industry has prioritised legislators and regulators who can affect the industry’s freedom to operate. In its communications effort, business aviation is making progress by focusing its messages around three core areas.

Firstly, the current situation. It has quantified and explained the industry’s current impact on the environment, and how this compares to other industries and has improved over time. While this message would be inflammatory in isolation, it forms an important part of the wider story.

The future is naturally the central focus. The industry was early in committing to net zero and has a positive story to tell on how emissions will be further reduced by embracing new fuel, technology and operational improvements.

Lastly, and vitally for an industry in the crosshairs, business aviation is highlighting the under-celebrated good it brings about. As a technology incubator, inward investment conduit and unique contributor to a flexible air transport system, business aviation brings substantial benefits to individuals, communities and economies around the world.

In its latest guise, the industry’s effort takes the form of the ‘Climbing. Fast’ advocacy campaign led by the US-based National Business Aviation Association and supported by other international trade associations. This effort builds on the NBAA’s longstanding ‘No Plane, No Gain’ campaign, alongside other initiatives such as the European Business Aviation Association’s annual EBAA Yearbook, which details the economic and connectivity contributions the industry makes across the region.

Although led at a trade association level, these efforts are at their most effective when cascaded throughout the industry, with resources made available to member companies (few of whom can afford in-house sustainability experts) to help business aviation work in unison and hit the same notes consistently.

The opportunity for airlines

Using the same approach, there is a substantial opportunity for commercial aviation to better tell its story to those who matter most:

  • The situation – the key statistics around aviation emissions are well established but not every airline leader or communicator has ready access to verified and current data. While there’s no room for complacency, airlines shouldn’t shy away from the fact that aviation contributed only 2% of global energy-related CO2 emissions in 2022, according to the International Energy Agency. Meanwhile, aircraft and engine manufacturers can provide valuable data on the significant strides made in aircraft emissions and noise pollution over recent decades.
  • The future – the industry’s focus on innovation is driving progress in sustainability. The coming years will see the introduction of more efficient engines and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Airlines have already taken steps to promote SAF but could do more to enlist passenger support to encourage governments to ramp up production, as well as to apply public pressure on airspace modernisation. Alongside the headline-grabbing work on hydrogen, hybrid and electric propulsion, there are other incremental improvements in train, such as Airbus’ development of a more efficient flapping wing. Such individual projects may make a valuable contribution to the common goal. The ultimate solution to aviation net zero will be a jigsaw rather than a silver bullet, which is why airlines (large and small), manufacturers and other participants must work together to grow awareness, inwardly and outwardly, of the reasons to keep faith with the industry.
  • The good – tourism is a £6 trillion industry that accounts for one in four jobs across the globe and represents a vital source of income in many less economically developed countries in particular. Responsibly managed, tourism provides a far more positive source of economic development for countries than exploiting their natural resources. And in today’s fevered geopolitical era, the greater cultural understanding and friendships which aviation fosters internationally have never been more important.

All of this is to say that commercial aviation is a force for good with a reputation that lags the progress it is making on sustainability and the benefits it delivers to society. It’s clear that passengers want to keep flying and governments want economies to keep growing. What is needed is a communications strategy that draws on all the industry’s talents and shares a common communications toolkit so that airlines and other players can all speak more confidently with a united voice.

Read here how 8020 Communications helps clients take and communicate substantive action on sustainability, or get in touch for more information.

Marc Cornelius