North American survey of eco-travellers finds two-thirds could not name a single environmentally friendly airline
Southwest Airlines' Green Plane logo (photo: SWA)
Thu 18 Feb 2010 – An extensive survey of 1,736 green travellers, mainly from the US and Canada, shows there are significant opportunities – or challenges – to airlines in establishing an environmentally friendly brand image to this growing market segment. Over 65 percent of respondents could not name a single airline that presented itself as environmentally friendly. With a 4 percent response, Southwest Airlines was the ‘winner’, receiving almost twice as many mentions as other airlines. Carbon offset programmes also fared badly in the survey with the largest group of respondents not knowing enough about them to form an opinion.
The survey was carried out from May to July 2009 by San Francisco-based Community Marketing Inc (CMI), which has published its findings in the Green Traveler Report – described as the first comprehensive study of green travellers. Over 4,000 adults were surveyed in all, and the report focuses on the 1,736 respondents who considered themselves ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ eco-conscious and took at least one overnight vacation in the previous year.
The question asked in the survey was “Over the past year, which airline has done the best job presenting itself as environmentally friendly? Base your answer on your experience of their green/sustainable-related outreach and communications, sponsorships, advertising, environmental practices, etc.”
The report believes airlines can win green points with more up-to-date, fuel-efficient fleets. It points to a gain in market share among green travellers by JetBlue, with its newer planes, in-flight recycling and waste management programmes. However, respondents did not seem impressed by recycling initiatives, which did not have an effect on the main environmental impact of air travel – the carbon emissions of jet engines.
“Branding aside, it may be some time before the airline industry has any substantive metrics to hang a solid green image on,” says the report.
Asked for an opinion on carbon offset programmes, 32.4% – the largest group – responded they didn’t know enough about them to have an opinion. However, 30.9% agreed they were a marketing tool that helped increase awareness and make a difference and 14.0% agreed they were a good way of protecting the environment. On the other hand, 22.8% said the programmes were ‘greenwashing’ with no substantive value.
The report notes that offsets are facing increasing criticism not only from pro-growth, anti-environmentalists but also from pro-environment organizations. It cites the decision by Responsible Travel, the first US travel company to offer customers a carbon offset option back in 2002, which cancelled its programme in October 2009, saying the travel industry’s priority must be to reduce rather than offset carbon emissions.
Another consumer survey, co-authored by the US Travel Association, found that 78% of American traveller respondents consider themselves “environmentally conscious”, yet only 9% said they were willing to pay more to use travel service suppliers that offer eco-friendly options, and only 3% of respondents have ever purchased a carbon offset when they booked travel.
Business travel has been slowed by the economy, and as respondents indicate, so has the commitment to green business travel, finds the report. The majority of respondents said they had not travelled on business in the previous 12 months. Those who had, however, did not receive strong green travel directives from their companies. Over 75% said their employers did not recommend staying at hotels with green initiatives, and over 70% did not recommend booking travel and transportation with the environment in mind.
“Businesses are ‘talking the talk’ when it comes to corporate social responsibility and commitment to the environment,” says the report. “Studies indicate that more and more companies are making environmentally responsible travel part of their mission. Given the results of our study, however, that is not translating into dollars spent on green hotels and carbon offsets for jet travel.”
The report concludes there is considerable confusion and scepticism among travellers over green claims by organizations and suggests a recognized and trusted certification is needed to establish standards in green travel.