“We cannot go on paving roads and laying rails forever”

Finnair is seriously green. How serious? It has its own vice president for sustainable development, Kati Ihamäki. Next month the carrier will begin disclosing operational details related to its environmental efforts, including recycling and waste management programs that are designed to “maximize eco-efficiency across operations,” she says. Finnair also launched a blog focused largely on sustainability. I spoke with Ihamäki about some of the myths and realities of being a “green” airline.

Q: Should air travelers expect to pay higher prices in order to be environmentally responsible?

Ihamäki: The prices should not be higher, although usually advanced companies aren’t competing with price as much as with quality. Sustainability is a part of quality.

Q: Finnair’s commitment to the environment isn’t a recent thing. Can you give us some history on the airline’s environmental initiatives?

Ihamäki: Finnair created its first environmental policy group 23 years ago. In the beginning, the focus was on new legislation and requirements, noise pollution and hazardous waste issues. Then in 1997, Finnair expanded its systematic environmental strategy work and published its first external report.

Q: What does a vice president of sustainable development do?

Ihamäki: My responsibilities include ensuring that Finnair’s environmental goals in Finnair Group business activities are realized in such a way that Finnair is among the leading airlines in environmental activities. I am also responsible for the coordination of environmental strategy and emissions trade projects as well as for integrating environmental issues into Finnair’s competitive strategy.

Q: Could you please define sustainable development in the airline industry?

Ihamäki: I think the most important issue is to have the best available aircraft technology. In environmental matters, it is imperative to actively seek better and more economical operational measures and new possibilities that go beyond legal boundaries. Stakeholder communication and cooperation is also essential.

Q: OK, what kind of development would you consider to be unsustainable?

Ihamäki: Unsustainable development would be just to stick to old habits and operations, using dated technology. This unfortunately is true for many companies at the moment and is greatly due to their unsustainable economic situation, which won’t allow the companies on the brink of existence to make investments.

Q: Being “green” seems to be very fashionable among American travel companies now — particularly airlines. What’s your perspective on our recent fascination with the environment?

Ihamäki: I recently wrote about this issue in my blog. People and companies want to be green, but the real forces that drive customer decisions are still economical issues.

Environmental issues seldom beat those of cost. People are willing to be green if it doesn’t cost them anything.

I believe that in the future environmental issues will become an important part of decision-making and real actions will be taken as awareness grows. This happens when the consequences of environmental changes touch the everyday life of a person. On the other hand lawmakers and states will necessitate actions and so will major corporations. It is their policies which shape the world.

Q: In your opinion, what are American carriers doing right when it comes to the environment?

Ihamäki: As we have seen, government regulations lead the way in the US. For example, a single ATM system brought enormous savings in fuel and thus emission levels in US. Europe is lagging behind clearly.

When it comes to carriers themselves, the importance of a clear sustainability strategy is evolving. Before it had more of a philanthropic charity aura. Companies took care of stakeholders by donating.

Q: Are carbon offsets a good idea? Do you think passengers should pay for them? Or should airlines be footing the bill?

Ihamäki: I believe in the EU “polluter pays” principle. Finnair offers a CO2 calculator on our Web page. We want the customers to see how they can contribute by choosing a carrier that has a modern fleet, is efficient in its operations and hence is invested in the protection of the environment.

We do not share the idea that customers should pay. Neither do we offer any compensation programs on our Web pages. We have investigated the possibility of investing in some CO2 compensation project (CDMs) for our customers. We have also discussed with CCX (Chicago Climate Exchange) and sought cooperation in order to compensate for our US operation emissions.

Mainly, we believe that carriers themselves should take responsibility for environmental work and investments. Finnair has invested several billions in a new fuel economic fleet, and we are also taking part in EU ETS starting in 2012. Of course we would like to see a sectoral approach to carbon trading for the airline industry.

Q: Are biofuels a realistic alternative to fossil fuels, or are they for now, at least, more of a green gimmick?

Ihamäki: I think they are very realistic in the longer term. It only takes a little more time and effort, when you have to take into account temperatures of -50 Celcius and other safety aspects and go through an extensive standardization process.

We have engaged in cooperation with oil companies and manufacturers. To my understanding this development is moving forward — especially in the USA. We believe in 2nd generation biofuels rather than those which are harming food production.

Q: I think it’s fair to say U.S. airline passengers are confused at the moment. We can buy carbon offsets at the airport, our airlines say they are now recycling and conserving resources. But it’s getting more difficult to separate a legitimate environmental initiative from one that’s just a clever marketing initiative. How can you tell the difference?

Ihamäki: The difference is in whether there are a real strategy and actual investments, compared to efforts that demand more marketing than deeds. I do believe that every little green action each one of us makes, regardless of the reason behind it, is good for nature.

I do also realize that customers are confused. There are so many different messages in the market. I think our industry should educate customers more, and try to show the pioneer spirit in finding new solutions. Cooperation is paramount. We want to engage in more open communication in this field.

Q: There are some who believe that air travel is so destructive to the environment that the act of flying is essentially irresponsible. Is that true, or is it possible to have it both ways — travel by air, yet also protect the environment? And if so, then how?

Ihamäki: Sustainability has three dimensions: ecological, economical and social. If we only think in an ecological way in this case, we harm two others. Developing countries need air transportation and tourism. In a global economy flight connections are essential.

The key here is to compare different alternatives and rationalize. Intermodality is also important. Finland, located in a far corner of Europe, can be thought of as an island. We do not have a real alternative to travel to Central Europe, for example, let alone further afield. It’s a different issue for those living in Central Europe: train connections take you everywhere.

Finnair offered a flight+rail link to Zurich some years ago, where passengers could fly into Zurich and then take the train to other destinations in Switzerland. Similarly, we do not recommend that people take flights between cities in southern Finland. It is more reasonable to travel short distances by train. Finnair does operate some commuter flights, with smaller aircraft producing fewer emissions. These flights are mainly used for connecting to other destinations from Helsinki.

People seldom realize that cruise ships actually produce more air emissions per ton kilometer than a plane. Also, the carbon footprint of a high speed train is far greater than that of a traditional train. Both road traffic and trains consume more non-renewable raw materials than air travel, which only needs three kilometers of runway for travel across the globe.

Q: What should our attitude toward travel be, if we want to be environmentally responsible?

Ihamäki: Each of us should consider the method of transportation and compare the options. Having arrived at the destination, one should be responsible, use mass transport, choose environmentally sound hotels and act in a sustainable way taking the local communities into account. And while traveling you can save energy back home by lowering the temperature and leaving all the lights off… We must look at solutions rather than absolutisms like banning one industry altogether.

The bad reputation air travel has is partly due the fact that the industry hid too long behind the “2 percent of CO2” figures. That was a mistake. Even if we produce only 2 to 4 percent of man-made CO2 globally, it does not take away the fact that we must take action to improve!

We must see beyond today. We cannot go on paving roads and laying rails forever. In the future, food production will become a greater issue with the population rising. Space on Earth will be needed for growing food. Who would have thought 80 years ago, that travel to another continent would be possible within one day? I am sure that as we solve technical issues, and discover new fuels, flying will be the transport of the future.

Finnair has in fact opened the discussion on the future of flying. We must look forward to see future solutions. We have involved experts in various fields from professors in ecology to future researchers to comment on the issue. I think we have brought up some very important items.

Q: What responsibility do our governments bear in making air travel greener?

Ihamäki: They can set the standards and be active in promoting greener options. They can educate us and show leadership. The Finnish government just sent out an RFP for their air travel and we had to show real deeds in environmental work. We succeeded.

Q: So what you’re saying is that flying on Finnair is better for the environment?

Ihamäki: We fly direct routes between the cities along the great circle route, making a stop at the uncongested Helsinki airport. We use the latest aircraft technology.

Choosing Finnair can save up to 30 percent in emissions. I am waiting for it to show in our sales. I am certain that Finnair is the choice of future air travel.

Q: Should we expect to see more airlines appoint vice presidents of sustainable development?

Ihamäki: I certainly hope so! Even though we are competitors, we all have plenty to gain from information sharing and cooperation. This is also true for air traffic controllers, airports and manufacturers.

A good example is flight safety. The incredible safety figures of flying have been reached by open cooperation across all commercial airlines. We may compete furiously for the passengers but on environmental issues, the whole industry gains when a positive development is made.

The fall of green travel

Green travel is dead.

I arrived at this unlikely conclusion while talking with Mike Ragsdale, the “town evangelist” for a seaside community in Northwest Florida called Alys Beach. “People think being green means making sacrifices or paying more,” he told me. “That’s not necessarily true.”

Apparently, a lot of travelers feel the same way. A vast majority of them — 85 percent — consider themselves to be “environmentally conscious,” according to a recent YPartnership survey. Yet most of them now say they’re unwilling to pay a premium for being green. They expect them to be good stewards of the environment in which they operate, according to the study.

No one is saying that being environmentally responsible is irrelevant when you travel. On the contrary, it’s that being green is so important that it shouldn’t become another marketing gimmick. It should be a part of what you do every day — part of every travel company’s DNA.

That’s why green travel as we know it, with the hotel touting its use of recycled water, the airline bragging about its use of alternative fuels or theme park buzzing about its new lightbulbs, is well on its way to becoming history.

Take Alys Beach, for example. You won’t hear it use the word “green” to describe the way it went about designing and building the resort’s units. But everything from its tiles to its roofs is designed with sustainability in mind. They’re energy-efficient and built to last hundreds of years instead of a generation or two. “A few years from now, the standard roof would be in a landfill somewhere,” says Ragsdale. “And that isn’t very green, is it?”

So where does that leave you? Here are a few thoughts about traveling in a post-green world.

Don’t allow a travel company to cash in on your conscience.
Being green shouldn’t be a reference to the color of your money. But it often is. Several airlines, including Air Canada, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin America, now offer programs that allow you to offset your share of carbon dioxide emissions from a flight — for a small fee. Sounds awfully tempting. But it’s absurd. Think about it: Would you be willing to voluntarily pay an extra $30 to your pharmaceutical company to clean up one of its toxic dumps? If anything, you would think twice before buying another one of that company’s products. Which is exactly what travelers ought to do when faced with an offset option: run to the competition. Travel companies should be offsetting their own carbon, not guilting you into paying yet another surcharge for it.

Ask why they’re “green” in the first place.
Sometimes the answer isn’t so obvious. A fuel-saving initiative might benefit the environment, but it can also help a company’s bottom line. A cruise line like Royal Caribbean, which has a fairly aggressive environmental program called “Save the Waves” probably wouldn’t have taken such actions if it weren’t for a five-year investigation that led to the company pleading guilty in federal court to dumping thousands of gallons of oily bilge, dry-cleaning fluids and photo-developing chemicals into the ocean. Also, how geographically consistent is a company’s commitment to the environment? A ship’s foreign registry allows it to avoid many American regulations. Does its greenness extend beyond U.S. territorial waters?

Pay attention to what they don’t say.
It’s unbelievable that hotels continue to advertise the fact that they’re “green.” At a time like this, shouldn’t they all be embracing basic concepts like sustainability and good environmental stewardship? A recent press release caught my eye, noting that the Doubletree Hotel Palm Beach Gardens had become an official member of the Florida Green Lodging Program. Among the improvements: in the past year, all guestroom and corridor lighting was replaced with compact fluorescent lights for energy efficiency. “The hotel has also implemented an extensive recycling program,” according to Doubletree. That begs the question: What did they do before then? Do you mean to tell me that you were consuming energy like there was no tomorrow as late as 2007? And that leads to yet another question about any hotel that’s a late adopter: Why should we reward you with our business?

Look at a company’s entire environmental record.

Travel companies want us to think they’re making the world a greener place. For instance, United Airlines says it began practicing new methods for reducing fuel consumption, including charting a more efficient course across the Pacific, which is said to have saved 1,564 gallons of fuel and 32,656 pounds of carbon emissions on a single flight. How wonderful. But that doesn’t make United green, and a look at its entire environmental record reveals it’s had its ups and downs. Just a year before, regional air-quality regulators in California fined United almost $400,000 for ignoring pollution requirements and failing to ensure properly functioning filtering equipment at a maintenance facility. When a travel company claims to be environmentally responsible, it’s important to look at its whole record — not just its recent record of greenness. The best companies are consistently, and quietly, green.

Personally, I’ll be happy to travel in a greenlightened world. Hotels won’t be able to monetize my environmental sensibilities. Airlines will strive for a long-term positive environmental record instead of scoring a few fleeting points with treehuggers. Same for cruise lines and car rental companies.

Kermit had it all wrong. Maybe it is easy, being green.