Reducing flying’s environmental impact: the power of behavioural science

The aviation industry is under increasing scrutiny for its environmental impact. Some airlines have made bold claims about going carbon neutral, but the truth remains that achieving complete sustainability is still beyond their reach – and people know this.

Earlier this year, a consumer class action lawsuit was filed against Delta Air Lines for inaccurately billing itself as the world’s “first carbon-neutral airline”.

So, rather than spouting unrealistic claims and greenwashing, it’s time for the industry to face the reality of its carbon footprint and explore more practical approaches to reduce its impact on the environment. Embracing behavioural science will be key to this; it can be used to guide consumers towards sustainable choices and making genuine progress in combating the climate crisis.

The most sustainable action is not to fly, but people both want and need to travel by air, so it’s simply not a viable option. This means the aviation industry must take responsibility for its continuing impact on the environment and seek ways to mitigate it, while still enabling people to explore the world.

Incentivising for good

Choice architecture – an important component of behavioural science – can be used by airlines to lead consumers towards more sustainable decisions. Part of this means recognising that behavioural change is gradual and incremental; not immediate.

As people are unlikely to instantly stop flying altogether, the focus should be on making sustainable choices easy and appealing.

To demonstrate ways this can be done, The Team created the concept of Moo Air: a vision for a forward-thinking airline that enables customers to make sustainable choices while flying. Instead of claiming to be completely sustainable, Moo Air encourages honest improvements that passengers can effortlessly incorporate into their travel experience. The hope is that others will put this into action.

For instance, the Moo Air would offer vegetarian options as standard, unlike every other airline which gives meat as the standard option. People would have to request meat, or even pay more for it. This is because vegetarian diets can significantly reduce carbon emissions, water pollution, and land use.

A recent study, led by the University of Oxford, found that adopting plant-based diets can result in a 75% decrease in climate-heating emissions compared to diets with substantial meat consumption. At the same time, research has shown that simply labelling foods as vegetarian or vegan does not encourage people to make a sustainable choice. In fact, research found it deters meat eaters. So instead, a simple switch in what type of food is the “norm” means people’s actions become more sustainable.

Adopting behavioural science also requires understanding passengers’ individual motivations and needs – and the fact that humans will largely act in their own self-interest. Airlines can cater to the human need for individual distinction and control by offering premium seat options to those who choose more sustainable practices.

Want meat? Well, you can’t get it in premium, business or first class. For people who want to distinguish themselves by the class and comfort they fly in, the choice will be simple. Airlines could further incentivise passengers to travel lighter by offering rewards or benefits for those with minimal baggage, as this reduces fuel consumption and emissions.

A transparent approach

Airlines must understand that real change necessitates an open dialogue with customers about the environmental impact of flying. Rather than denying the challenges or offering vague promises, airlines should actively engage passengers in eco-conscious practices. Encouraging travellers to opt for alternative transportation or fly only when necessary are feasible ways to reduce their carbon footprint. It’s about being honest that, yes, flying damages the environment, while accepting it’s not going to disappear completely.

If an airline is authentic and honest, openly talking to people about what their choices are and about when and why they travel, people will warm to that. That’s the kind of airline people will want to fly with.

An important part of any organisation on a sustainability mission is to share progress. There has been a worrying trend towards “green hushing”, in which companies don’t share their progress for fear of reprisal or criticism. This will not lead to progress. Transparency and sharing what does and doesn’t work is the only path to success.

Time to be brave

Airlines and the aviation industry as a whole   need to be brave.

The status quo is no longer an option, for business or for the planet. By providing travellers with sustainable options throughout their journey – from booking to in-flight choices and accommodations – airlines can empower passengers to make greener decisions without compromising on convenience or pleasure.

Choice architecture is a powerful tool to guide decision-making. When applied with integrity, it can encourage better choices that benefit the planet.

The aviation industry may never achieve complete sustainability, but collective efforts towards incremental improvements can still play a crucial role in safeguarding the planet for future generations.

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