Do airlines need a social conscience?

Completing the three-second walk is a key part of the aeroplane experience. But all too often they get tackled just as it’s kicking into high gear. A yelp to tell another passenger the airport…

Do airlines need a social conscience?

Completing the three-second walk is a key part of the aeroplane experience. But all too often they get tackled just as it’s kicking into high gear. A yelp to tell another passenger the airport has improved on their shade of blue — it’s time to unstick the belt or navigate the new arrivals board, once again — or there is a yelp to remind the pilot that fuel is lower than they expected, telling him to reinstall that now-not-as-useful oxygen mask.

These passenger noises are trivial compared to the louder, longer hazzards: the constant battles with the navigation system and the fear of flying while screaming babies, kissing babies and other people do the same.

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Fueling the airlines

If it’s still not clear how airlines really need to address the needs of their passengers, perhaps a little context will help. Today, in theory at least, the airline industry can save thousands of tons of fuel and emissions by simply replacing just 1% of its domestic flying with newer aircraft that cost less. But that’s just the aspirational plan; overcoming the complexity of the system on the ground and coping with rising fuel prices by installing newer, cleaner technologies remains a challenge.

To be fair, it’s easier to find passengers willing to pay more to fly after knowing that a fellow passenger just beat them to the toilet. But that’s symptomatic of the fundamental issue.

In aviation, most fuel costs are still based on the older generation of aircraft — Bombardier, Boeing and Airbus — that consume upwards of half the carbon emissions of newer aircraft. More efficient aircraft won’t make flying any less noisy, irritating passengers or draining the banks of the engines, and their dramatic increase in fuel efficiency will actually increase the life of the plane and its emissions production.

“Whenever a legacy aircraft is retired it can take 7-9 years for us to close the gap,” says B.J. Doughty, vice president of product strategy at Bombardier Aircraft. “That’s why the rest of the industry is trying to develop new models with both more fuel-efficient engines and better aerodynamics.”

Cheaper fuel and social problems

Pushing new engines and complex and emissions-controlling systems into an aging, heavily used fleet will take years, and when it comes to internal combustion engines, the pain is yet to start. But fuel efficiency matters to less wealthy passengers and has boosted airlines’ customer bases.

The gradual conversion of even just 5% of the industry’s fleet will be a tough win for airlines, but if the economic benefits can be managed over a shorter period of time then the economic gains in the long term are impressive.

But that progress is only sustainable if airlines deliver an acceptable standard of service — by as much as 30% — when considering a switch in aircraft.

“Airlines do require to expand their network to the most economically viable routes, so consumers have a tendency to hate the cancellation, overbooking and unhelpful staff,” says Ethan Stashine, spokesperson for the Global Business Traveller (GBT). “Consumers definitely prefer a ‘one flight at a time’ experience.”

That resistance can make it difficult for airlines to justify the cost of new-fangled equipment and systems. Take Delta’s decision to use its 777-300ER as a platform for its ECO Trainer. The company financed the high-tech training simulator, promising that it would help employees improve fuel efficiency by 25% by 2024.

But not only has Delta found itself burning fuel to keep the Eco Trainer in operation, the company is paying for – and sitting on – an estimated $3 million worth of units that have never even been used by air crews.

And that’s what keeps airlines from committing more resources to the fleet upgrades: they will take a large financial hit if they pay for it upfront while facing an uncertain return on investment.

“The burden of proof rests on the customer,” says Stashine. “Airline profitability will improve with a fleet upgrade.”

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