AmTrav CEO Jeff Klee is getting frustrated by tokenism and perfunctory action when it comes to sustainability and corporate travel.
On the 2022 business travel conference circuit, sustainability and purposeful travel were all the rage. Panelists at events large and small touted the urgency to reduce travel and, with it, carbon emissions. Given the chorus of consent on the issue, one could be forgiven for assuming that the effectiveness and virtuousness of minimizing travel is settled law. Even ChatGPT agrees that “reducing the amount of flying can contribute to efforts to address climate change.”
But before we permanently throw business travel into the plastic straw category, I’d like to offer a different view. It’s not to cast doubt on climate change. On the contrary, it starts with the premise that our current trajectory really is unsustainable. But serious problems demand serious thinking, discourse and solutions – not virtue signals or symbolic gestures.
For all the talk of reducing flying, we should keep in mind that air travel accounts for only 2.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Business travel is only a fraction of all air travel (leisure plus cargo make up the majority). And businesses that are willing to reduce travel represent only a small fraction of that fraction – and even they are only talking about some of their travel. Will a tiny subset of a tiny subset really move the needle?
A successful effort to curb business travel would have consequences beyond just the environment. Over the last three or four decades, growing demand for air travel has spurred investment and innovation, leading to lower costs and increasingly more affordable travel – a virtuous cycle that has created jobs, improved living standards and made the wonder of travel accessible to a much broader swath of the population. If the goal now is to reduce demand to choke off supply, success would reverse that. The results would include fewer flights, higher fares that price less affluent travelers out of the market, lower levels of investment in the sector and, paradoxically, weaker incentives to build more fuel-efficient planes.
But none of this matters as much as the basic question: do we really want to save humanity by making ourselves less human? Face-to-face interaction is not a vice or an indulgence. It makes life worth living. Efforts to get outside our bubbles and connect with people should be celebrated, not shamed. I know we’re being told that same-day trips and internal face-to-face meetings can’t be justified, but by what standard? At my company, I worry about our post-Covid hires who have rarely if ever met their co-workers. On a Zoom meeting, you might be able to get through an agenda, but how many people are fully engaged like they would be in person? During breaks, people retreat to their kitchens by themselves instead of to a break area with their co-workers. Is that difference not significant? Are things like culture, camaraderie and collaboration not important because they’re too hard to measure? The greatest benefits of in-person meetings are rarely on the pre-meeting agendas, a reality that the new ROI calculators just can’t account for. In our quest to root out travel that isn’t purposeful, we are forgetting the very purpose of travel.
I am not sure exactly how we can solve our climate crisis, but I know we won’t solve it by giving up that which we want and need. It is objectively true and arguably good that most people – Americans especially – won’t accept solutions that ask them to compromise too much. Only the most ardent activists wanted the tiny, slow electric cars that first hit the market. It wasn’t until Tesla showed that a car can be fast, cool and eco-friendly that everyone became an environmentalist. That’s what it will take with air travel. The ultimate solution will have to be technological, not behavioral, so we can all have our cakes and eat them, too.
I’m skeptical of the impact of token reductions in travel, but that is not to say that we should all just sit back and wait for someone else to invent something. I think it’s great that many travelers and companies are voting with their wallets and choosing more fuel-efficient aircraft. Such decisions could positively influence airline fleet decisions. Some are paying extra for sustainable aviation fuel, which is also admirable. We should seek ways to support – with words, money and votes – public and private grants or prizes aimed at those innovating in this space. Carbon capture, hydrogen powered planes and projects like these all sound promising, but the ultimate solutions are probably yet to be imagined.
You might wonder, if I have my way, how will all these conferences fill their agendas if they remove the obligatory sustainability panels that preach how we all need to cut back on our travel? It’s true that we as an industry love to have repeated conversations about topics, however important, that we can address in ways divorced from reality. But even if we skip the cut-travel panels, there’s no reason that has to change.
We still have NDC.