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Sustainability Takes Flight in the Travel Industry

Airlines, cruise lines, hotel chain and tour operators are turning to a wide range of technologies, tools, and initiatives to help optimize resources and maintenance.

Samuel Greengard

January 26, 2023

6 Min Read
Sustainable Aviation Fuel. White airplane model on flower fresh green leaves background.
Liliya Filakhtova via Alamy Stock

The human desire to experience other places and cultures is nothing new. Yet, getting from Point A to Point B is among the most carbon-intensive activities on planet Earth. Today, the travel industry contributes somewhere between an estimated 8% to 11% to total emissions globally.

Indeed, the travel industry is facing a reckoning. Amid rising sea levels, melting glaciers, droughts, flooding, biodiversity loss, and other climate-related problems, many regions are threatened. Nations and individual travelers are recognizing that carbon output must be curtailed.

“There is momentum toward greater sustainability in the travel industry,” states Jesko Neuenburg, global travel and aviation sustainability lead at Accenture.

In fact, the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) have both established a goal for members to reach net zero by 2050. In addition, more than 450 travel companies, tourism boards and others have signed on to the United Nation’s Glasgow Declaration on Climate Change.

Amid this backdrop, airlines, cruise lines, hotel chains, and tour operators are turning to a wide range of technologies, tools, and initiatives. These include synthetic fuels and electric aircraft, connected “smart” systems within the Internet of Things (IoT), hybrid low-emission cruise ships and vehicle fleets, and artificial intelligence (AI) that can optimize resources and maintenance.

Says Julien Lardet, a partner at Boston Consulting Group: “In some cases, sustainability is being viewed as a competitive advantage.”

Reshaping Travel

Sustainability is no longer an abstract issue for the travel industry, which accounts for about 10% of global GDP. A November 2021 report from WTTC and Accenture, A Net Zero Roadmap for Travel & Tourism, found that 83% of global travelers think sustainable travel is vital, and 69% seek out more sustainable options. In addition, countries are enacting stringent mandates and regulations, the news media is increasingly focusing on sustainability, and investors are scrutinizing companies and their ESG initiatives. “There’s a growing recognition that sustainable practices are essential,” Neuenburg says.

Not surprisingly, various sectors within the travel industry are approaching sustainability in different ways. The aviation industry is transitioning to synthetic fuels, hydrogen-powered aircraft and electric aircraft, but companies are also adopting more advanced IoT technologies and AI that optimize flights and maintenance. Airlines are also adopting lighter materials that reduce fuel consumption on aircraft, and giving passengers the option of turning down meals before they board in order to reduce food waste.

For example, United Airlines has invested in a biorefinery that produces sustainable aviation fuel and made a strategic equity investment in a battery manufacturer that’s developing technology for electric aircraft. It also has invested $15 million in an electric air taxi startup that aims to deliver 200 four-seat electric aircraft by 2026. These air vehicles would be used with an Urban Air Mobility (UAM) ecosystem that could take shape within major cities in the coming years.

Delta Airlines has also made major investments in synthetic aviation fuel. In addition, it is focusing on ways to build sustainability into daily operations. For instance, Delta is reducing onboard single-use plastic consumption by approximately 4.9 million pounds per year through recycled bedding, reusable and biodegradable service ware, and other initiatives. In addition, the airline has committed to deploying 50% electric ground support equipment by 2025.

Airlines are also beginning to use AI software that tracks, in real time, weather data and flight information from other aircraft so that pilots can optimize a flight path. “In some cases, the aircraft may travel a slightly longer distance, but by avoiding headwinds or taking advantage of tailwinds the airline can decrease travel time and fuel consumption,” Neuenburg explains.

The sum of these technologies and approaches will drive sustainability gains over the coming years, Lardet says. “When you combine these advances with a greater focus on optimizing fleet performance through AI, IoT, and analytics you begin to make a real impact on carbon output, including Scope 3 emissions,” he says.

Sustainability Sails Forward

Although airlines provide a high-profile glimpse at how sustainability will play out in the travel industry, they aren’t alone in the quest to trim carbon output. For instance, Norway-based cruise line Hurtigruten is transitioning to battery hybrid cruise ships, which cut emissions by about 25%. The company also uses food waste to provide bio-diesel power to some ships. Hurtigruten plans to introduce a zero-emission cruise ship in 2030.

In fact, Hurtigruten was the first cruise operator to commit to science-based targets. It aims to become carbon-neutral by 2040 and reach net zero by 2050. “There are no viable technological solutions for achieving emissions-free marine travel, so we are at the forefront of seeking greener alternatives,” explains Rikke Hegge Jørgensen, vice president of ESG at Hurtigruten Group. Working with European research institute SINTEF, it is rethinking everything. “The creation of zero-emission ships requires transforming a ship’s design, propulsion, and energy-use systems,” she notes.

The hospitality industry is also reducing its carbon footprint. While giving guests the option to use bedding and towels for multiple days and turning to refillable soap and shampoo containers has gone mainstream, many properties are adopting IoT and smart systems to manage air conditioning, lights and outside irrigation. For example, sensors can detect when a room is unoccupied and turn down or shut off an HVAC.

In addition, many newer hotels meet stringent LEED standards, which may include the use of green concrete and other sustainable materials, along with more advanced design elements like smart glass, photovoltaic cells, and fresh air filtering that reduces the need for electricity and air conditioning.

Passport to Progress

Yet, despite all these advances, travel companies have only started on the sustainability journey. When WTTC examined the broad industry, it found that only 42% of companies had established clearly defined climate targets, and, of that group, only 20% were aligned with the Science-Based Target initiative (SBTi) guidance.

Key obstacles included a fragmented regulatory landscape and lack of government support, insufficient internal and external budgets for a net zero transition, as well as dependency on existing infrastructure.

CIOs and other IT leaders at travel companies should keep an eye on technology and how it is maturing, Neuenburg suggests. This may require taking a stake or buying other firms. It might also require joining industry consortiums that focus on R&D focused on sustainable technology and practices.

“In aviation, the cruise industry and other sectors, some of these technologies aren’t quite there -- or they don’t yet scale well,” Neuenburg says. However, these technologies are advancing rapidly, and companies could easily find themselves falling behind the industry. Consequently, “It’s important to have visibility into sustainability performance. It’s crucial to develop some type of roadmap and stay tuned so that you’re ready to use technologies when they become available.”

Another possibility is to offer gamification techniques and rewards for customers that engage in sustainable behaviors. This might take the form of a slight discount or rewards points. “Business leaders must think creatively about how they can drive sustainable practices. There are many ways to do this,” Neuenburg points out.

Lardet says that travel companies should plan for significant change over the next decade or two -- and adopt science-based targets to ensure that they are actually hitting meaningful goals. “It will be necessary to adjust and adapt airport and cruise infrastructure, IT systems, software, and supply chains to match a changing world,” he says.

Concludes Hurtigruten’s Jørgensen: “If we don’t strive for a greener travel industry, we risk losing the nature and wildlife that’s at the core of the adventures we love.”

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About the Author(s)

Samuel Greengard

Contributing Reporter

Samuel Greengard writes about business, technology, and cybersecurity for numerous magazines and websites. He is author of the books "The Internet of Things" and "Virtual Reality" (MIT Press).

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