The worldwide unrest caused by the COVID-19 virus has sent
shockwaves around the globe – a rippling, and at this point, ongoing, transformation
of the status quo in personal and professional routines.
In doing so, it has forced upon us numerous experiments that
may have long-term impacts, potentially most profoundly on the travel industry.
In every corner of the world, companies and individuals are
figuring out how to maintain workflow in the absence of face-to-face
interactions. Cities and countries are discovering the benefits of a drastic reduction
in industrial activity, auto emissions, flights and tourism on air
quality. And companies are wrestling with how to cut costs as anticipated revenue disappears.
On Friday, Shashank Nigam, founder and CEO of aviation
marketing consulting firm SimpliFlying, posed a simple question
on LinkedIn: Did
we NEED to fly so much after all?
It’s a question Nigam says he is struggling with as he sits
under lockdown in Mumbai, staying with family until the situation eases and he
can return to his home of Toronto. For the past decade, Nigam says he has made
about 55 to 75 flights every year, clocking 200,000 to 300,000 kilometers
“Most of us in the developed world are used to flying at the
drop of a hat. When a client asks us to, or for a holiday. It’s so affordable
to fly; it’s so common to fly. You just don’t question it at all,” he says.
But the coronavirus has given Nigam time to question it.
“My last business travel was to London to deliver a workshop
at the end of February, just before the lockdown. The next workshop with this
airline client we may have to deliver virtually. And guess what, we will
probably do it,” he says.
“And yes it may not give us the intimacy of being in the
same room as the people, but if we can deliver 90% of the value from content
and leave the 10% to an interaction once a year as opposed to four times a year
– why not?”
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Along with questioning the business value for that travel, Nigam
says he’s thinking about his carbon footprint, which he calculated for the
first time in January. The result – he says – was a shock: At 90 metric tons
per year, not only was Nigam’s carbon footprint twice that of highest per
capita carbon footprint country (Qatar
at 44 metric tons), it was also 95% attributable to his air travel.
“I’ll be the first to say I’m not a tree-hugger type of
person, but this came as a shock, that I really don’t need to go green in other
ways, I just need to reduce one long-haul flight per year. That was the trigger
for, do we need to fly so much?”
A valuable opportunity?
As founder and CEO of sustainability consulting firm
Greenview, Eric Ricaurte works with global hospitality chains such as Marriot International,
InterContinental Hotels Group and Hilton as well as smaller hotel brands, destinations and cruise lines.
Ricaurte says the pandemic is creating an opportunity for
companies – many that are feeling pressure from both the public and from
investors that they need to address climate issues – to do a reset.
“They’ll consider what does our budget look like? Where can
we save? And suddenly it’s, ‘Could I cut business travel and continue meeting
remotely because that seemed to work,’” he says.
“And the carbon emissions reductions will be clear from this
year, and companies will want to take credit for their reductions because they
will need to address climate change as part of this whole package.”
Exactly what that reset in business travel strategy will
look like remains to be seen and will certainly vary from company to company. For
example, Ricaurte says there may be a move to less incremental business travel
while maintaining attendance at larger industry gatherings, where a company can
conduct more aggregate business with one trip.
Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, a senior lecturer in tourism
management at the University of South Australia, hopes for a more radical
“It’s time we don’t go back to business as usual,” she says.
Higgins-Desbiolles says the problem is that “we’ve run our
economies on endless consumption and endless growth” – which has fueled
excessive leisure and business travel. Now the sudden and dramatic impact of
the coronavirus is making individuals and companies realize there are
It’s time we don’t go back to business as usual.
“I think COVID-19 has an element of challenging to the way
we do things. I don’t want to say a silver lining, because I’m devastated we are
going through this crisis,” she says.
“But when we experience something like this, we should use
it as a point of critical awakening. We see a shutdown of everything we’ve
taken for granted. So when we come back to reviving our economies and getting
travel and tourism running, we need to reset it within ecological boundaries.
Because this is one pandemic, but there will be more coming after this.”
And one of Higgins-Desbiolles’ biggest fears? That the
economic hardships of the pandemic will cause even some who in recent years
have been “shouting about overtourism... to ramp up the growth rhetoric quickly”
as soon as travel restrictions are lifted.
Once the crisis passes, Nigam says airlines and airports
will need to focus on what he calls “the three Ss” in order to helping people
feel comfortable flying again.
The first “S” is safety. The second is sanitization: “After
9/11, cockpit doors were bullet-proofed. Similarly we need a ‘health
bullet-proofing’ now to regain the confidence of passengers getting back into
the air,” he says.
And the third is sustainability: “There’s an opportunity here
for airlines, airports to come back and say our previous levels [of climate
impact] were X and now we’ll only do 0.5X when we go back in the air, through a
combination of lesser flights, more efficient routing, more efficient fuel,
things like that.”
Nigam sees the concept of “essential” – at the heart of
the lexicon that has developed around COVID-19 – to have a long-term impact on
the way we travel.
“There will be a category rising after this where there are
people who require travel, and they may get an essential travel certificate from
their company or an authority like the state government. These might be doctors
or nurses or plumbers or even cashiers, people who need to travel. And there
may be a separate fare category for them, just like the separate category for
military personnel, and maybe even priority boarding,” he says.
“Essential travel or essential workers I believe will be a new
category that rises at the end of COVID-19. It will force airlines to cater to
them. It will allow people who must travel to potentially access lower fares while
those who need not travel all that much are using their discretion to decide
whether to travel or not.”