Responsible for 2.5% of global carbon emissions, the aviation industry is under increased pressure to set a path to reach net zero.  The pandemic was a survival battle for airlines, but set the scene to re-evaluate business models and make necessary changes to protect the environment.  Climate change is among the most pressing challenges the aviation industry faces today.   

In the long-term, we as the global travel industry must move towards clean aviation – this needs to be a multistakeholder approach that includes airlines, governments, technology companies and suppliers.  In the medium-term – and despite its drawbacks – switching to sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) could mean a reduction in carbon emissions of more than 70 percent.   

However, the above is a long journey.  In the immediate term, airlines need to embrace and accelerate digital transformation, leading to better operational efficiency, effective route planning and healthier profitability.  Technology can help serve as a bridge while the industry acts on multi-year plans to reduce its emissions.  Here are five ways it can help make flying more sustainable now.    

1. Displaying CO2 emissions calculations in passengers’ search results 

71% of global travelers say they want to travel more sustainably.  But how can they if they don’t know what sustainable means?  By showing passengers how much CO2 each flight is estimated to produce, we can raise awareness of the environmental impact of aviation and encourage passengers to make greener choices.  Google is empowering people to make sustainable choices through its Travel Impact Model (TIM).  The TIM powers the carbon emissions estimates that passengers see next to nearly every flight when they search through Google Flights.  Google’s TIM was recently integrated into Sabre’s travel booking system as well.  So now, when a travel agent goes to book a flight through Sabre, they and their travellers can see the estimated carbon footprint of each possible choice. 

2. Route planning for aircraft  

Machine learning and artificial intelligence can help airlines set more efficient flightpaths, minimizing fuel consumption and reducing delays.  These technologies analyze things like wind speed, temperature and weather patterns in real time – reducing fly time and cutting emissions.  Delta Airlines is already having some success with this, using predictive data analytics to improve its fuel efficiency and reduce carbon emissions by approximately 2.5 million metric tons annually.  Better route planning also means reduced operating costs for airlines – so, more money to invest in innovation and advancing sustainability goals.  

3. Selling carbon offsetting – or SAF investment – as an ancillary 

When buying a ticket, some airlines give travelers the option to pay a little more to offset the carbon emissions their flight will create.  While the effectiveness of these schemes is debateable, they do offer the consumer some way of taking action.  What we could see more of in the future is airlines putting “offset” ancillary income towards the development of sustainable aviation fuels; United Airlines is doing this already.  This could help accelerate the aviation industry’s transition to SAF, which is still in the early, and very expensive, stage of development.  Either way, effective retailing technology is needed enable airlines to offer these initiatives to travelers.  

4. Using passenger data to more accurately predict demand 

Another way technology can help airlines operate more sustainably is by using passenger data to more accurately predict demand.  With advanced algorithms and machine learning, airlines can better understand customer behavior and anticipate future demand.  They can then adjust capacity to meet demand without overloading flights or running half-empty planes.  As capacity utilization increases, greenhouse gas emissions per passenger kilometer decrease, making air travel more sustainable. 

5. Using technology to help decrease load factor

While ensuring that as many seats as possible are filled on a flight, an airline must balance this with carrying unnecessary weight.  Unnecessary extra weight increases the quantity of fuel burned in flight; as the International Civil Aviation Organization explains, “the extra fuel burn attributable to additional weight carried on board an aircraft is typically… 2.5 to 4.5 per cent of the additional weight, per hour of flight”.  Technologies can help airlines maximize seat capacity and space for essential cargo, while implementing luggage weight restrictions, and minimizing unnecessary items onboard.  

Key takeaways

Raising awareness on sustainability, while improving operational efficiency are things all airlines should be doing now.  At Sabre, we are actively offering and developing technology that helps airlines set the fastest routes, increase passenger load factors, reduce unnecessary weight, retail more effectively, harness the power of AI and data, and help travelers make sustainable flight choices.  Today, every flight should aim to be as green as possible, and technology holds the key.