Is This the End for Airline Greenwashing? Meet the CEO Who Thinks He Has the Answer


Skift Take

In recent months, several big-name airlines have been accused of greenwashing. Could independent, AI-driven data put an end to the confusion for consumers and corporate travel departments?

Air France, Lufthansa, and Etihad Airways each have something in common. The answer? They’ve all fallen foul of the advertising regulator for making claims about their environmental prowess. 

Last year, this troublesome trio was judged by the U.K’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to have given consumers “a misleading impression.” Much of this centered on sustainability-linked statements that could not be fully substantiated.

For example, Lufthansa’s online ad highlighted “Fly more sustainably” in reference to its “green fares” that it claimed to reduce CO2 emissions by 20%. But the ASA said the German firm had failed to clarify how passengers could actually fly more sustainably. 

The regulator also found that the French flag carrier’s use of “Air France is committed to protecting the environment” and “travel better and sustainably” was misleading. Meanwhile, UAE-based Etihad was called out for including the phrases “total peace of mind” and “environmental advocacy” in its Google advertisements.

Most airlines are keen to give the impression that they’re progressing towards eco goals, not least an industry-wide promise to be net-zero by 2050. Consumers also increasingly aware of the impact of air travel.

But awareness is not the same as action. 

New data from Booking.com’s annual sustainable travel research suggests that 45% of the 31,000 people surveyed feel traveling more sustainably is important, but not a primary consideration when planning or booking travel.

Some of the problem lies in apathy. The Booking.com results show one-third feel the damage already done to the planet is irreversible, while other respondents appeared downbeat about their practical ability to make more informed travel decisions.

Why Knowledge is Power for Greenwashing

The prospect of a real-world solution amid so much lethargy is welcome, and that’s what aviation analytics company Cirium thinks it has done. Speaking to Skift, its CEO Jeremy Bowen is blunt about the modern travel landscape, especially for larger organizations. He argues that “greenwashing isn’t going to wash now with the corporates.”

Rather than the airlines or individual travelers, Bowen believes that it is big businesses – many of which have increasingly tough environment, social, and governance (ESG) targets – that will lead the charge. 

“The airlines are there to make money. We know that SAF [sustainable aviation fuel] is going to be more expensive. It’s about the corporates that put their employees on the plane. They have to pay for the offsets and put in their annual reports how much carbon they’ve emitted. They need to show progress. That’s where the pressure will come from.”

What is Emerald Sky?

At the heart of Cirium’s environmental offensive is a new system called Emerald Sky. Launched in late May, it promises to transform data accuracy for aircraft emissions and fuel burn. The platform allows seat-by-seat emissions to be tracked by corporate travel departments, aircraft finance firms, and airlines themselves.

Through what it describes as “groundbreaking and revolutionary methodology,” Emerald Sky analyzes each flight’s specific aircraft type and design specifications, combined with real-time operational data and flight conditions. Even engine degradation and its impact on flying performance can be considered. 

As Bowen explains: “Based on our machine learning and AI data science, the key difference is we don’t treat every airline and aircraft type the same. It’s not a generic Airbus A320. For example, we know it’s configured the way that British Airways will have it versus Vueling.”

The system also differs from traditional carbon calculators that can rely on estimates and assumptions such as the use of pre-planned routes rather than the paths actually flown. Other important variables, including wind speed and direction, are often ignored in earlier systems. 

A headshot of Jeremy Bowen, Cirium CEO
Jeremy Bowen, Cirium’s chief executive officer

Informing the Travel Decision Makers

“As a corporate travel manager, if you know exactly where you are compared to another airline flying the same route, you can make decisions very quickly. They’ll likely be asking for that airline to be one of their corporate partners and RFP [request for proposal] accordingly,” said Bowen.

“We’ve actually done that analysis, we’ve sat down with the travel manager of a very, very, large organization. We showed them two months of data from flying across the Atlantic with their two carriers. They turned around and said, ‘Well that one needs to be removed from my policy.’ That’s the kind of accuracy of the data that’s needed now.”

Notably, the new platform offers access to historical and predictive datasets. Users can examine data for the last five years, as well as projected carbon footprints for the upcoming 12 months.

The ‘Cold, Hard Cash’ Factor

The concept of a tech CEO claiming their new product will change the industry is nothing new. In fact, it usually deserves a health warning.

Asked by Skift why he thinks Emerald Sky will be revolutionary, Bowen said it ultimately comes down to money. “I genuinely think it will change the industry because people are now saying, ‘I’m going to have to pay if I’m not doing this accurately.’ While people were previously talking about sustainability and how they quite like the idea of it, now people are having to put up cold, hard cash. It’s this accurate, powerful data that gives a baseline in the industry. It’s definitely the future going forward.”

While much of the environmental focus so far has been in and around Europe, Bowen believes it’s a trend that will soon cross the Atlantic.

“You’re going to see a lot of the U.S. turning around and saying, ‘I actually care about how much emissions my corporate travelers are using’ rather than it being a ‘nice to know’. If you have to pay for it, people are going to care about it. I think we’re finally going to see emissions not just being spoken about, but being acted on, and that’s super important.”

Airlines Sector Stock Index Performance Year-to-Date

What am I looking at? The performance of airline sector stocks within the ST200. The index includes companies publicly traded across global markets including network carriers, low-cost carriers, and other related companies.

The Skift Travel 200 (ST200) combines the financial performance of nearly 200 travel companies worth more than a trillion dollars into a single number. See more airlines sector financial performance. 

Read the full methodology behind the Skift Travel 200.



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