Managing its environmental footprint is the air transport industry’s “number one challenge” in a world where people’s mindsets and expectations are changing fast, the head of Europe’s transport ministry told a Washington DC audience.

Addressing the International Aviation Club of Washington July 23, European Commission (EC) director general for mobility and transport Henrik Hololei said aviation emissions “had to come down” if the industry is to maintain its license to grow.

“In Europe, we observe that people’s mindset about that is changing very fast and, without the slightest doubt, public demand and societal expectations for cleaner and much more sustainable air transport will grow rapidly in the coming years,” he said.

He noted that the term “flight shame,” started with a movement begun in Sweden, is spreading and pressures people to not fly. France has decided to introduce an environmental tax on all flights in response to the movement.

“Let us also not underestimate that the millennials have a very different approach to social media, artificial intelligence and sustainable mobility. They expect sustainability and competing, customized door-to-door offers from anywhere to anywhere with whatever mode of transport,” Hololei said.

“If the industry is not delivering credible responses to show that it can continue to grow while reducing emissions, this pressure will only mount and, sooner than later, regulatory intervention follows … The last thing we want is an accumulation of national disruptive measures, which will unavoidably affect also the US aviation and tourism sector.”

Hololei said he felt the industry’s global response so far was “very timid and complacent,” arguing that its CORSIA carbon offsetting scheme, agreed through ICAO, was sufficient.

“The industry has not been able to grasp nor understand the changing societal trends and expectations. It is high time now. This innovative industry just cannot maneuver itself into being defensive on this important global and political issue. Even though the aviation sector’s emissions make up just 2% of global emissions and continued fuel efficiency gains have partially decoupled CO2 emissions from expanding air transport services, it is nevertheless one of the few sectors where emissions continue to grow. This is not sustainable.”

He noted that aviation will have to collaborate to provide a “basket of measures,” including addressing the industry’s still very low use and availability of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs).

“To accelerate the [SAF] uptake, we have to create a regulatory framework with a predictable legal framework for incentivizing investments in production and innovation. I have discussed this idea with a number of key airline CEOs, as well as fuel producers, and they all agree that this is definitely one additional avenue that needs to be pursued. With this in mind, I do really regret that we were not able to agree on the quantitative targets of SAF at the ICAO meeting in Mexico at the end of 2017. A global commitment through ICAO would have been a strong message, but I am sure we will eventually get there. Europe is ready to show the lead.”

Karen Walker/ATW