With extreme weather events dominating international headlines, the air transport industry has been quick to take on board climate change adaptation plans – both to mitigate immediate climate risks and to build sustainability into operations.

Leading industry bodies and initiatives, such as the Airports Council International (ACI) and Airport Carbon Accreditation (ACA), have published policy briefs and guidelines to conduct better operational risk assessments and pursue carbon neutrality through robust certification processes.

But will operational sustainability be enough to position an airport as a true sustainability leader?

Be aware of shifting consumer behaviour on climate change

Sustainability is now a top concern for consumers, especially millennials, who currently account for about a quarter of the global population and represent the world's most powerful group of consumers.

This same consumer segment is at the forefront of leading and participating in numerous climate marches around the world: March 15th 2019 marked the day where coordinated marches took place in over 100 countries globally, drawing attendance not only from students and young professionals, but concerned citizens from various backgrounds and communities.

Among others, these vocal climate advocates see the transport industry as a whole, and the aviation sector in particular, as one of the main causes of growing greenhouse gas emissions that are aggravating the global climate crisis. Younger participants are especially critical of the negative environmental effects associated with flying and overseas travel, calling on peers to boycott air travel.

Airports who are able to appeal to the needs and concerns of the millennial generation will be able to better tap into a market worth over 13 trillion Euros by 2025. Millennials are expected to be more global and more mobile than any previous generation.

With this frame of mind, taking sustainability action becomes a strategic decision, rather than an operational one.

Engage the right stakeholders

In the past, stakeholder engagement was seen as secondary to the corporate sustainability agenda. Not anymore.

With improved global access to information, organisations, airports included, are dealing with a more informed, engaged and sophisticated group of customers. Pursuing an open dialogue with core stakeholder groups ensures that plans are validated and that actions taken are communicated in a clear and relevant way.

It's no wonder that a number of airports and airlines are rolling out plans to engage and build stronger buy-in for sustainability action among their core stakeholder group – passengers and airport visitors:

  • Airlines are providing passengers with the possibility to offset their emissions from flights or to reduce environmental impact by choosing an update to biofuel usage.
  • Airports are driving the environmental agenda by, for instance, investing in green infrastructure projects, ranging from solar panels to energy efficient terminal buildings and a more sustainable atmosphere for passengers through using natural light and more efficient ventilation.

All promising and forward-looking initiatives. The question remains: will simply reaching out to passengers be enough to garner their support and validate your efforts?

Focus on emotional engagement

No one will value what they don't care about, and no one will care about what they do not understand or have not experienced.

The same applies to getting your key stakeholders behind your vision for sustainability – especially the most sceptical ones. Engagement is the first step, but bringing your passengers and airport visitors on board as partners in implementing your plans will only succeed if they can connect with the benefit of changing their behaviours or their views.

Take the example of carbon offsetting as part of the Airport Carbon Accreditation process: investing in carbon credits is an abstract concept for many travellers. Clean air, safe drinking water, and healthy rainforests are not. Focusing on the positive impacts generated through your investment in carbon offset projects will create spaces for you to engage with your key stakeholders on the topics that matter the most to them.

Once robust, quantifiable sustainability commitments are in place, emotional engagement can be prompted in different ways: plans can be aligned to work towards solving a burning issue in the region where the airport is located, for example. Another way is to connect with passengers over shared social values, by investing in carbon offset projects that drive development in areas such as women empowerment and access to education.

Bottom line: investing in sustainability will sharpen your strategic position in the market

Passengers, millennial passengers in particular, are at the very heart of the airport business. The needs of this highly sensitised and rapidly growing customer group – bolder action on climate – should move your conversation on sustainability from operations management to corporate strategy.

Getting buy-in from these stakeholders will be central to the success of your sustainability plan, in validating, driving and developing your activities. Connecting with them means basing your claims and engagement around carbon neutrality, for example, on projects with high environmental integrity and measurable impacts towards the betterment of society.

Is your airport strategically positioned for this new reality?