It's a Flying Shame

By Ben Martin

While waiting at Gate 34 inside Miami International Airport for my flight back to London just 48 hours after landing at the same terminal, my mind reflected on a topic from a panel discussion I had participated in earlier that afternoon – flight shaming.

It’s a concept that’s popping up with increasing regularity around the world — thank you, Greta Thunberg — and one that the hospitality sector can’t simply ignore, even though it might subconsciously want to. It’s also points towards a trend that may radically change the profile of work that we at HKS undertake for hotel developers.

“Flight-Shaming” is not new. It’s just that now we’ve put a catchy name to it. Indeed, the term actually made it to the Oxford Dictionary’s shortlist for ‘2019 Word of the Year’. Like seemingly so many things to do with environmental action these days, the term was coined in Thunberg’s native Sweden, where ‘Flygskam’ literally translates as ‘flight shame’ and refers to the increasing discomfort felt by frequent flyers regarding their carbon footprint.

I’d wager that many people reading this article have started to share my own sense of anxiety about this matter. On the one hand, we’re living in a time when many of us feel that international travel is a basic human right, and people continue to tell me that face-to-face interaction is the only way to build a strong commercial relationship. On the other hand, we are all more conscious that air-travel is pumping carbon dioxide into the troposphere; and whilst ‘off-setting’ may help us to sleep better at night, it’s not really dealing with the core issue — what to do about it?

We are all more conscious that air-travel is pumping carbon dioxide into the troposphere; and whilst ‘off-setting’ may help us to sleep better at night, it’s not really dealing with the core issue — what to do about it?

The conundrum was highlighted clearly last April when actress Emma Thompson was interviewed by a slightly smug journalist at the Extinction Rebellion rally in London about whether it was maybe a tad hypocritical of her to have flown in for the march from Los Angeles. Thompson made the point that ‘sometimes she simply has to fly, but that if she could have flown ‘cleanly’ she would’, but until the boffins have resolved the challenges surrounding electric airplanes we don’t really have much of an alternative.

The good news here is that scientists and engineers are beginning to find solutions to the issues of battery life and weight. Indeed, December 2019 saw the introduction of the world’s first commercial electric plane service, in Canada. The plane was small, and the flight was short, but it’s a start.  By 2040, Norway has promised that all its short-haul flights will be on electric airplanes. Again, that is good news, but I fear that it may be sometime before we see large-scale commercial flights from say, Miami to London.

To put all of this into some context, a recent New York Times article, citing research undertaken by the International Council on Clean Transportation, estimates that air travel accounts for 2.5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, a far smaller share than emissions from passenger cars. However, the steady growth of air travel indicates that aviation could apparently account for as much as a quarter of the world’s ‘carbon budget’ by 2050.

A quick look at the automobile industry suggests that the aviation sector will eventually get up to speed with hybrid and electric planes, but in the meantime, what are we, the travelling public to do?

Adapted from The International Council on Clean Transportation. Stats from 2018.

Some ideas have come from an unlikely source. KLM, the world’s oldest operating airline, has done an ad where it suggests that people take trains instead of planes. Now there’s an innovative marketing strategy for you.

But with all this talk about Flight-Shaming, what are the implications for the hospitality sector?

Considering the options

Essentially, we have two options; consider alternatives to flying (FYI: Greta Thunberg says she has not flown since 2015) or consider a ‘staycation’. I anticipate that this second option will have an increased impact on the work of design firms like HKS over the coming decade, as we see growing demand for ‘urban resort’ hotel concepts, like the Banyan Tree Hotel in the heart of Kuala Lumpur;  as well as all-weather resorts that are located a short drive from the urban core, like the Great Wolf Lodge concept in North America and Center Parcs in Europe.

Essentially, we have two options; consider alternatives to flying (FYI: Greta Thunberg says she has not flown since 2015) or consider a ‘staycation’.

Markets hate a vacuum and the pressure of flight-shaming will likely drive greater investment and creative thought into the concept development of ‘urban resorts’ in the 2020s. These will be schemes that offer both exceptional all-weather leisure and dining options and attractive or imaginative accommodation close to home (as a side benefit, they may also present the opportunity for a little ‘tagskryt’ or ‘train-bragging’ which is also now a ‘thing’). Our firm’s recently completed Four Seasons project in São Paulo may provide an indication of where things may be heading, with its signature restaurants, world-class spa and indoor-outdoor pool; and our design for the new h-Club Los Angeles also responds to this trend.

Four Seasons Hotel and Residences São Paulo at Nações Unidas
h-Club, Los Angeles

These concepts may not tick the box for everyone. For example, the sun-seekers and nature lovers amongst us may feel a little short changed. But it will become a highly marketable, potentially cheaper, and simpler holiday alternative for others.

Business travel will be a harder nut to crack, however. Ongoing improvements to video-conference and WebEx technology will doubtless help, and companies are starting to at least give consideration to their carbon footprint today (though in the short- to medium-term we may continue to see a little ‘smygflyga,’ or ‘secret flying’ going on). Another option of course, would be to invest in company yachts and take sailing lessons. However, as much as I like to dabble in watersports, the idea of sailing back from Miami to London, ‘Greta-style,’ in the middle of winter would certainly take me well outside my comfort zone; not to mention several weeks rather than several hours to achieve.

Ben Martin

Ben Martin is a Principal and Financial Advisory Leader at HKS. Based in London, Ben helps clients make informed strategic decisions on real estate development and investments. He is a real estate economics expert, with a particular emphasis on resorts, residential, leisure and mixed-use properties.