Massimiliano Claps
Max Claps (Research Director, IDC Government Insights)

September through December are busy months for IDC analysts. Industry and tech vendor conferences and events are happening every week. Only over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be traveling first to Rome and then to Portugal and, every time I travel, I try to think of my carbon footprint.

Going to Rome is a no brainer, I’ll drive my hybrid car to the train station, then ride a commuter train to Milan, then a high-speed train to Rome, and eventually the subway to the hotel; I’ll ride electric end-to-end. Going to Lisbon, there’s no choice, I need to fly, unless I fancy spending two days on a bus. So, my carbon footprint will be much higher. True, Lisbon is much farther away than Rome, but still the average carbon emissions of a flight are much higher than those of a train.

Air travel executives know that policymakers, investors and passengers are expecting them to be more ambitious in terms of their environmental sustainability targets and are taking actions.


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The Three Horizons of Sustainable Air Travel

In the immediate aftermath of COVID, somebody thought that doing more work, learning, getting entertained remotely would replace a lot of air travel, hence reduce emissions. But air travel came back with a vengeance.

Therefore, air travel executives need to rely on other levers to increase sustainability. One of the most critical is technology innovation. Technology innovation will play a strategic role to make air travel more sustainable through three waves.

  • In the long-term, electric and hybrid electric propulsion aircraft will drastically reduce both carbon emission and noise pollution. But although air taxis are already technically possible, long-haul electric flight is at the research stage.
  • In the medium-term, alternative fuels will reduce, but not eliminate emissions, and by 2030, they will not represent only about 10% of all consumption, according to the International Energy Agency.

Information and communication technologies (ICT) will help – for instance, AI is being applied to accelerate the discovery of alternative fuels, digital twins are used to design and develop electric engines for aircrafts – but they won’t be the critical enablers. These medium-to-long term changes will be dependent on biochemical, mechanical, and electrical engineering developments.

  • In the short-term, it will be a whole different story. ICT will be strategic to make air travel more sustainable. From designing and operating more fuel-efficient routes, by integrating traffic control systems, such as the Single European Sky, which is expected to cut carbon emissions by around 10% per year, to applying AI and machine learning to reduce taxi time – American airlines intelligent gating program is providing the capability to save more than a minute of taxi time per flight. From implementing more sophisticated data collection and analytics to report scope one, two and three emissions more accurately and then offset them, to reducing airports’ energy consumption. From sharing data among airlines, global distribution systems, online travel agencies and brick-and-more travel agencies to nudge passengers to buy environmental sustainability products and packages, to partnering with railways to replace short-haul flights or better connect airports.


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I consider myself a quite environmentally conscious person, but then when I look back at my twenty plus years career in the ICT industry, I took so many flights that make my environmental conscience feel guilty. I hope that I’ll be able to travel on an electric powered airplane, someday.

In the meantime, there are plenty of opportunities to embrace ICT innovations to make air travel more sustainable. To learn more about airlines’ sustainability and other strategic and operational innovations enabled technology, take a look at IDC’s global research on the industry.

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