Sustainability will be key to the future of the travel industry as it recovers from the pandemic, said Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president-public affairs and policy for the U.S. Travel Association, speaking on the first of a series of webinars called “Future of Travel Mobility.”
The first webinar focused on sustainability. The webinars follow a “Future of Travel Mobility” conference last fall, which will be followed by the second one on Sept. 20 in Washington DC.
U.S. Travel, she said, will be forming a Sustainability Working Group with a membership representing a diverse expertise in the subject matter. That group will be named shortly. The drive toward sustainability, said Barnes, is being driven by consumer practices, investor demand and government policies. She said that sustainability is critical to attracting the workers needed to deal with historic worker shortages. “Protecting the planet and its people is in our business interests,” said Barnes.
Erik Hansen, vice president of government relations, said the association is focusing on two initiatives right now that the entire industry can have an impact on in affecting governmental policies. One is expanding the infrastructure for the adoption of electric vehicles. He said that where charging stations are built is important and “our industry can play a leading role in this.” He added, “We can’t leave this to chance.” He also discussed the Virgin Hyperloop, a new technology demonstrated at last fall’s conference that can carry passengers at 600 miles per hour using little energy.
Air travel is the other focus, said Hansen. Also at last fall’s conference, a company called Joby Aviation made a presentation of its all-electric aircraft which have a range of 150 miles. The company expects to get FAA certification within the year.
Long haul transportation presents more substantial challenges, said Hansen, because of the limited supply of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). He quoted Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines, as saying that if Delta bought all the world’s SAF inventory it would power the airline’s global fleet for one day. Massive investments are quired to ameliorate that situation, said Hansen.
Michael David Cook, director of ESG (environmental, social and [corporate] governance) for American Express, spoke about trends in sustainability. He said that the bar for companies is now much higher in the actions they take – going well beyond volunteerism and philanthropy.
There are “growing expectations” around sustainability at all levels of government, said Cook, including new regulations in multiple places around carbon emissions, clean water and more. In addition, investors are facing increased pressure to act. He said a recent survey showed 75% of people want to work for an organization that makes a positive impact and has a strong environmental agenda.
As for travel, Cook said that more than two-thirds of respondents want to choose airlines or hotels that value diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) – part of the broader sustainability landscape. Also, most are interested in carbon-negative travel. American Express itself, he said, is aiming for net-zero emissions by 2035.
Asked how companies can demonstrate their commitment, Cook said that it might include measuring or monitoring an organization’s impact on the environment. On a consumer level, it might mean developing products and services that consumers actually experience – like reducing single-use plastics or offering carbon offsets or displaying certifications by appropriate organizations. He said he was recently at a hotel where there was a sign in the restaurant about composting.
Cook said that while it’s still hard to quantify how much sustainability is affecting consumer behavior, American Express is seeing a shift in demand among younger travelers who see ESG as important to their choice of travel suppliers.
The industry is committed to the nation’s environmental goals, concluded Barnes. “As we continue our recovery,” she said, “that commitment will ensure a future that is even more prosperous and sustainable.”