Route development – a balancing act

Airline services and route networks ultimately decide the fate of any airport. As global environmental concerns grow, navigating air service development towards sustainable aviation will be a key challenge going forward, writes George Karamanos.

Air travel is vital in facilitating global mobility, trade, and tourism. However, the rapid growth of the aviation industry is gradually hitting the obstacle of environmental impact and long-term sustainability. Balancing the need for air service development with environmental preservation is becoming increasingly crucial.

With Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) becoming the most mentioned theme in airport and airline annual and quarterly reporting, it is increasingly essential for airports to incorporate the sustainability parameter into their air service development strategies.

While route development and sustainability have, up to now, seemed to be an oxymoron concept, airports are deliberately trying to find initiatives to incentivise more sustainable flights. And to be very clear, sustainable with regards to ESG and not to the profitability of a route.

Air service development refers to attracting and maintaining new airlines, routes, and passengers to airports. It has become an integral part of most airports’ business strategies. It involves collaboration between airports, airlines, tourism boards, and local governments to stimulate demand, enhance connectivity, and drive economic growth.

There are currently more than 1,000 airports around the world that are actively implementing air service development strategies to pursue new airlines and routes.

Therefore, the prime aim of increasing airport traffic differs from the goal of reducing its environmental impact, especially CO2 emissions and noise. On the other hand, new routes and frequencies bring substantial benefits to an airport and its serving region, such as job creation and positive economic impact. It is, therefore, critical to find a balance, which will differ for every airport.

Although the aviation industry accounts for 2.5% of global carbon emissions, it is still considered a significant contributor to climate change, facing hostility from many states and institutions, especially in Europe.

While airlines and airports fully feel the elephant in the room and are increasingly adopting sustainability initiatives to address this issue, they are still losing the communication and policy war.

This has a direct impact on their license to operate and grow. Flight caps at airports, the difficulty of building new runways and terminals, and the extension of curfews, for example, pressure the airport’s operation and capacity to attract more flights and airlines.

Although the Jetblue issue at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport has now been resolved, it is an excellent example of how route development can be impacted. It was initially among the airlines at Schiphol set to be denied take-off and landing rights for summer 2024.

Airlines were informed of the Airport Coordination Netherlands’ new restrictions, which are part of an ongoing controversy around the Dutch government’s continuing efforts to curb traffic, reduce emissions, and minimise noise at Amsterdam Schiphol.

In the meantime, JetBlue filed a complaint with the US Department of Transportation (DOT) against the Netherlands and the European Union over the planned cuts at Schiphol, claiming they violated the US–EU Air Transport Agreement, while also requesting the DOT ban KLM from New York-JFK if the proposed curbs were implemented.

It is, therefore, evident that such actions can result in a chain reaction which has far more significant repercussions.

France’s decision to ban short-haul domestic flights for journeys that would take less than two and a half hours by train is a parameter that should be considered when French airports redraft their air service development strategies. At the same time, it is a regulation that should be expected to be gradually introduced in other countries as well.

Therefore, government policies, international agreements and regulations play a crucial role in shaping the sustainability of the aviation industry.

While measures such as emissions trading schemes, carbon taxes, and incentives for sustainable aviation practices can incentivise airlines and airports to reduce their environmental impact, they should also ensure the ongoing network development of airlines and airports.

The whole aviation industry is involved in the sustainability fervour, but airlines and airports are the most exposed to the public. Together with ACI and IATA, they have been exploring all the domains that could assist them in reaching their targets, including becoming carbon-zero by 2050.

Advancements in technology are driving innovation in sustainable aviation. New technologies and sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) will eventually help cut emissions by around 80%.

When we look at airports, their efforts focus primarily on minimising energy consumption and reducing carbon emissions and noise. It is becoming apparent that their sustainability strategies should also include air service development.

Airports must start including the airlines’ environmental footprint and economic impact in their evaluation parameters of airline performance and development. Moreover, they need to include initiatives in their air service development strategies that would incentivise more sustainable operations by airlines.

Airports have already implemented some of the examples below. Still, they must start thinking proactively and creatively about measures that would support routes and airlines which better align with carbon minimisation targets and ensure sustainable air service development:

  1. Sustainability-based Route Assessment: Besides calculating potential revenue and profit contribution, airports should also analyse routes based on the following criteria:
    – Which routes and airlines deliver the highest load factors, assuming greater efficiency outweighs negative per-passenger carbon impact?
    – Which routes and airlines provide more extensive social and economic benefits than the resulting carbon impact?
    – Which are the most environmentally friendly aircraft operated by operating and prospective airlines?
    – Which airlines have the capacity to change aircraft to match supply and demand better dynamically?
    – Which routes balance demand types, directionality, and cabin class usage.
  2. Green Landing Fees: Implementing green landing fees is familiar primarily for European airports. Based on aircraft emissions, they can incentivise airlines to operate more fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly aircraft. Airlines flying newer, more fuel-efficient aeroplanes or using sustainable aviation fuels could receive discounts or exemptions on landing fees. At the same time, those operating older, less efficient aircraft would pay higher fees. Airports like Athens are already investigating such pricing policies, while Heathrow and
    Zurich already have them in place, primarily for noise.
  3. Marketing Support: Provide marketing support and promotional opportunities to airlines with more sustainable routes. Airports can collaborate with airlines to highlight the environmental benefits of flying specific routes, such as reduced carbon emissions or noise impact, to attract environmentally conscious travellers.
  4. Joint Communication Initiatives: Passenger education and awareness are essential for sustainable air travel. Travellers can contribute to sustainability by choosing airlines with strong environmental credentials, offsetting carbon emissions, and adopting eco-friendly travel habits. Airlines and airports can also play a role in educating passengers about sustainable travel options, promoting responsible tourism practices, and addressing flight shaming. Moreover, we should remember that sustainability includes the airport’s positive impact on society and the economy. This area is where airports should not be shy about communicating as they are significant catalysts in their respective regions and countries.
  5. Infrastructure Support: Invest in infrastructure improvements that support sustainable aviation, such as electric ground support equipment, renewable energy installations, and charging stations for electric aircraft. By providing the necessary infrastructure, airports can make it easier for airlines to adopt sustainable practices.
  6. Recognition Programmes: Implement recognition programmes to acknowledge airlines that demonstrate leadership in sustainability. This could include awards for airlines that reduce emissions, implement innovative environmental initiatives, or operate the most sustainable routes, like ACI’s Airport Carbon Accreditation.
  7. Stakeholder Engagement: Engage with stakeholders, including airlines, local communities, environmental organisations, and government agencies, to develop sustainability goals and action plans collaboratively. By involving stakeholders in decision-making, airports can build consensus and support for sustainable aviation initiatives.

Air service development and sustainability are not mutually exclusive goals but complementary objectives requiring careful planning and collaboration. By embracing sustainable aviation technologies, implementing effective policies, and fostering collaboration across the industry, stakeholders can ensure that the benefits of air travel are balanced.

Depending on which part of the world an airport is in, irrespective of its size, it will face the sustainability challenge sooner or later. Achieving sustainable aviation is ultimately essential for the aviation industry’s long-term viability and the planet.

About the author

George Karamanos is managing director of Dubai-based KPI Aviation and Marketing Solutions, which provides tailored marketing solutions to airports, airport operators and tourism organisations.

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