The travel industry, and in particular the aviation sector, is going to find itself at the centre of an increasingly febrile debate about man’s impact on the environment.
A new generation of activist emboldened by worsening scientific data about climate change and inspired by the teenage campaigner from Sweden, Greta Thunberg, is going to waste no opportunity to confront people about their travel choices.
Flygskam in Northern Europe is already a cultural phenomenon being discussed at the highest level in travel as airlines wonder how a movement that shames people who fly might have a serious impact on consumers via influential digital platforms that set the tone of public discourse today.
These challenging circumstances were very much to the fore when four of the most powerful global travel companies set aside their competitive instincts and came together in Amsterdam earlier this month to launch the Duke of Sussex, Prince Harry’s new sustainable tourism partnership Travalyst.
One of those companies, Skyscanner, is headed up by a man whose passion for travel comes from a very personal place having been fortunate in his career to live and work in a foreign culture to his native US.
Bryan Dove, who took over as chief executive of the Edinburgh-based flight comparison company from founder Gareth Williams in 2015, grew up in Arizona and was 17 before he took his first flight.
But he says it was when he entered corporate life and was given the chance to move to India and immerse himself in a culture completely different to the one he grew up with that the real positives of travel hit home.
Dove told Travolution that he counts getting a passport and this period overseas as a stand-out transformational moment in his life so that when talking about the positive benefits of travel he is in no doubt. “For me it’s black and white,” he says.
So, how does a sector react when faced with the obvious answer to reducing its contribution to climate change – that people should simply do less of it?
For Dove the answer is not that people should travel less, but that the industry and consumer platforms like Skyscanner should provide transparency and information so that as customer sentiment shifts they can make the right, informed choices.
Skyscanner already allows customers to filter for flights based on fuel efficiency and Dove says 10 million people have chosen flights with lower CO2 emissions, sometimes paying more, sometimes paying less.
It’s a somewhat inconvenient truth that the low cost airlines that are largely to blame for the huge increase in flying over the last two decades are also some of the “greenest” operators given their high load factors and relatively young fleets.
Dove says Skyscanner clearly knows where its priorities lie as it plays a part in ensuring travel has a sustainable future.
“Our responsibility is to balance everyone’s interests, but our prioritisation is very consistent. We will prioritise consistently what’s best for the traveller, what’s best for our partners and then what’s best for us. That’s how we have operated for a long time.
“That’s built a level of trust both with our customers and our partners. We can approach them with openness and honesty if things start to change.”
What Dove says he sees emerging from the Travalyst alliance is a new form of widely accepted certification that standardises how users are informed about the products they are buying and which they can understand and trust, and which partners on the supply side have helped in devising.
This will cut across all modes of transport, so there might be circumstances in which customers are encouraged to consider whether they need to take that flight, particularly when other travel options are available.
“Our commitment remains the same, as we craft those standards, that we will all highlight them on our various platforms and make them accessible to our customers.
“Trust, for customers, is the most critical element. That’s built out of consistency and transparency so they understand what’s happening, they know what to expect and what that certification means for them.”
Asked whether customer-facing web brands like Skyscanner, which do not traditionally invest in the actual hardware of travel, might do more by ploughing back some of their profits into green technologies that may one day make flying acceptable to the Greta Thunberg generation, Dove says:
“Our responsibility is to balance our investments in technology and also the travel ecosystem. We’re still quite early on in this but have taken some of the early steps to balance our investments to ensure that this industry can continue to grow and thrive and most importantly travellers can continue to travel and see the world.”
Dove is not your conventional corporate CEO. He looks like someone who’d be just as comfortable chatting to eco activists staging a die-in on Waterloo Bridge as chairing a board meeting of a technology giant that assists millions of people each year to take to the skies.
Of the five global business leaders on stage at the Travalyst launch, he was the one Prince Harry teased because he was wearing normal black leather shoes, and not the trainers you’d usually find him wearing.
But for Dove growth in the sector, and continued growth globally in the numbers of people flying, is a certainty, the question is how as a sector does travel continue to encourage people to explore the world, but in a way that’s sustainable.
“I understand individuals wanting to take a position, to say what can I do as an individual to help. But I’m not an advocate of trying to promote less air travel. Primarily because it’s a gift for individuals to meet other individuals and to experience other cultures and increase their compassion and understanding.
“On a personal level sometimes that’s creating memories with your families and engaging with people and loved ones you’ve not had a chance to engage with. On a more grand scale we need to balance that across a number of different solutions to say we are improving, we are trying to protect the planet for future generations.
“Increase in travel demand will continue to be a challenge for any major metropolitan area as well as emerging destinations and the focus for Travalyst will be on over-tourism and also community and sustainability for destinations that cannot cope with the influx in demand.
“Our ambition is to help improve experiences and the sustainability of travel. Over time we will certainly need other partners to collaborate with us and the form that takes will be determined by what we do.
“For everybody who is in the business of enabling customers in deciding where to go when they travel, whether that’s a digital experience or face-to-face, they will start with a set of questions about what they are looking for.
“Our opportunity is to help people find those experiences but perhaps see destinations that are not top of mind. That’s an opportunity, from a customer perspective, because you get to see something you had not expected.”