While our previous articles have focused on core areas where changes and developments might have tangible impact on the future of airports and air travel, this article takes a side step. Here, we explore whether we have reached a point where airports and airlines now need to evaluate their brand and reputation from the sustainability perspective –as they look to re-invent the way we travel.

No one could have predicted the gravity with which passenger numbers would plummet or the extent to which the grounding of fleets and global lockdowns would impact the way we travel. For the industry’s recovery to be sustainable, it will be equally important for airlines and airports to [re]build reputations so that they are even stronger than before the crisis, and perhaps more importantly, to regain both passenger trust and investor confidence.

The link between reputation and sustainability

When we talk about the importance of brand and reputation, and making the link to sustainability, we are talking about more than the positioning of the organisation or the implementation of a PR campaign. Given that today’s generation of modern, environmentally aware travellers are more discerning in choosing their mode of travel, it is no longer (nor should it ever be) enough for the aviation industry to simply say that it is going to be sustainable.

It’s about putting the work, the strategies and practices in place and building transparency into how the results of these efforts are communicated.  Some airports have already reflected on the current crisis as an opportunity not only to review and adapt, but also to improve when it comes to sustainability.

With current focus skewed heavily towards adapting to the next normal, the motivation for airports to share or display sustainability efforts has been sorely tested in recent months. Many nevertheless have remained true to their ambitions, with Australia’s Sydney Airport for instance even renewing the commitment to their sustainability goals.

It’s also about how the growing generation of environmentally astute travellers and well-informed investors need to be addressed as part of the industry’s sustainability efforts. In fact, what we are talking about is sustainability from the societal, environmental, and economic (i.e., people, planet, growth/development) perspective. Because if there is anything that this crisis has shown us, it is that where severe economic/financial vulnerabilities exist, community-level vulnerabilities follow and can even threaten their collapse.

For airports, this means managing reputations beyond merely being a stop-off point or gateway facilitating a single service – air travel. The very influence these operations have on the communities around them is inextricably linked to traffic demand, jobs and the global tourism industry they fuel making sustainability a route to saving communities and attract investment.

Where are the leaders and who needs to catch-up?

Europe has been the undeniable front-runner in the sustainability race – often being the starting point for sustainable initiatives, and more often putting them into wider, proactive use and/or committing to ambitious sustainability goals. Munich International Airport, Frankfurt International Airport, Amsterdam Airport Schiphol and Paris Charles de Gaulle lead the pack in this respect, but airports across Asia and North America are not far behind.

Other airports by comparison have taken a more reactive approach to the threat of wider sustainability issues such as climate change.  But this is becoming an increasingly untenable position as pressure increases from those governments striving towards achieving low-carbon economies for example.

Even countries like the United States, which have traditionally been behind the curve on sustainability are catching up – Boston Logan Airport and Denver International Airport being two cases in point – further highlighting the growing importance of brand, reputation and positioning both aspects effectively. Airports are now beginning to expect sustainable approaches and solutions as a given from their contractors and service providers.

This is driven in part by the knowledge that sustainability will continue to grow in prominence – perhaps even more so as a result of COVID-19 – making the need for long-lasting solutions more acute. Solutions with 5-10 year shelf-lives simply make no sense strategically or economically and airports are starting to recognise this.

For larger airports, numerous options are on the table – from not flying short distances to improving their train connectivity to position themselves as multi-transport hubs. Even smaller airports that lack the infrastructure or finances to make substantial leaps are investing in innovations to make their operating model more sustainable; exploring opportunities to link into a hyperloop network for regional connectivity. That’s because from a brand and reputation perspective, pioneering innovative new technologies or solutions could help position airports in ways that go beyond size, financials or crises.

There are no airports or airlines, without passengers

A frequently raised question in aviation circles centres on how passenger trust can be rebuilt and maintained.

COVID-19 has shaken to its core the very concept of frequent, low-cost air travel. And, with much of the population currently reluctant to risk flying – possibly even in the event of a vaccine becoming available – there is every reason to believe that uncertainty and distrust will linger, not just among passengers, but investors and shareholders as well.

This makes a sustainability-focused brand and reputation crucial in instilling confidence among returning passengers and in the event of wider [economic, climate-related, or other] crises.  It also brings us back to airports, their place or role in communities and how crucial it will be for them to demonstrate benefits beyond efficiency.

Where some airports may once have rested secure in the knowledge that they would always receive a flow of passengers – whether due to their convenient location, or ease of connections – there is a good chance that that will not be the case in the future as health management and climate awareness take precedence over convenience and price in the modern traveller’s mind.

We have seen this in the way that airports have put in place a number of temporary measures such as social distancing, temperature checks, mandatory face-coverings and pre-flight COVID-19 tests; all while the industry debates how many of these measures will need to be retained in the long-term.

The difficulty here is in the different restrictions and regulations coming from different countries. Airports will have departing passengers who have been subject to certain criteria and restrictions. But in parallel, they will also be welcoming passengers who have gone through different processes. This makes the co-operation and collaboration of airports, within their communities and among industry stakeholders, vitally important.

It is plausible that those airports choosing to incorporate extra health screening – beyond requirements – may well be viewed as the safest and most reliable from a health perspective.  For regions served by multiple entry points – think: Vancouver, Seattle and LAX – which compete as Pacific gateway airports to and from Asia; or Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha as connection points between destinations around the Atlantic and Asia – this takes on even greater significance where the brand and reputation could prove significant in the fight for travellers, both today and in the future.

Airlines too have begun to set in train their own COVID-19-related measures with some choosing to leave middle seats unoccupied to maintain social distancing and others deciding against or dropping the measure entirely where it is no longer mandatory. For better or worse, these decisions have almost certainly affected the airlines’ reputation if not the brands themselves.

Airports and airlines are also collaborating to bring COVID-19 testing to travellers, as is the case in  Canada’s two largest airports – Vancouver (WestJet) and Toronto (Air Canada).

Are we looking closely enough at the sustainability question?

The short answer is no, especially when it comes to understanding fully the influence of sustainability on the success (or not) of a brand and its reputation. But a number of related industries are scrutinising the question.

Certain insurance companies for instance will not provide cover to airports that have not made the sustainable commitments that would make them more future-proof in light of climate change. Financial aid from governments and institutions is following a similar trend by requiring demonstrable evidence of sustainability in action. Then, there are global initiatives like the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) which since 2002 has itself seen more than 8,000 companies around the world publicly disclose their environmental data. Together with the CDP, more than a thousand organisations recently declared their support for the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosure (TCFD) recommendations. In fact, the TCFD is already being used by airports to attract loans and investments.

As initiatives such as these gather pace and prominence, it is not entirely unthinkable that we could be moving towards a future where those airports that have not disclosed their sustainability performance and climate risks will face limitations from servicing certain markets and lose investor interest respectively.  We have after all seen certain outdated, polluting aircraft types barred from entering some countries’ airspace.

Or perhaps passengers may choose to fly only to airports or use airlines that have provided acceptable levels of sustainability disclosure. Some airport investors might even re-allocate their shares to other assets with high sustainability performance and low climate risk.

So, as the issue gathers in significance, it seems reasonable to ask what this could mean for the airlines or airports that are not acting quickly enough to address the crises of our time.

The heart of the matter

With the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak continuing to reverberate and leave a trail of uncertainty in its wake, airports might be forgiven for focusing on their core or essential business – foregoing any thoughts of sustainability, brand and reputation.  Yet, paradoxically, it is precisely how the brand and reputation are perceived by passengers and institutions that could determine whether there is a sustainable future for their business at all. That leaves us with one final question: is now the right time to talk about brand and reputation – from the sustainability perspective? In our opinion, it absolutely is. Brand and reputation need to be managed as part of the sustainability eco-system. And, it is only by doing that that we will find out which airports come out of this crisis strongest – and which will define the sustainable future of our air travel.