Commentary: Flights to nowhere raise bigger questions about Singapore Airlines’ future
Questions surrounding the environmental impact of aviation have cropped up with this latest saga, but this is a chance for SIA to adopt long-term green solutions and become one of the world's pioneering net-zero airlines, says Eric Bea.
SINGAPORE: When I first read Singapore Airlines (SIA) is considering launching “flights to nowhere”, I thought it was a bad joke. Surely, if you get on a plane, you want to get somewhere, right?
To be fair, SIA is not the first airline to come up with this idea. Taiwan’s EVA Airlines offered something similar on a Hello Kitty-themed plane earlier in August, to satisfy pent-up demand from grounded travellers.
The SIA Group – comprising SIA, SilkAir and Scoot – is facing an unprecedented crunch, and could clearly use some help in keeping afloat. It’s currently operating at 8 per cent of its capacity compared to pre-COVID times, and has cut about 4,300 positions across the three airlines.
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There are also some basic facts we cannot ignore. Planes cannot be grounded in hot and humid Singapore for too long – their engines must be run at least once every few months, and some must be stored in deserts overseas.
According to Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) guidelines, pilots need to perform three take-offs and landings every 90 days for the specific type of aircraft they are licensed to fly. However, pilots may also meet this requirement by using a flight simulator.
Given these, some may argue flights to nowhere kill two birds in one stone by keeping planes and pilots in tip-top shape, while generating profit from travel-starved passengers.
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But there’s no denying the spotlight this episode has shone on how flights in general generate unnecessary carbon dioxide (CO2) and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and these flights to nowhere are only a plaster for the structural threats facing SIA and the global aviation industry.
UNNECESSARY EMISSIONS IN A WARMING WORLD
Let’s look at the environmental impact of a flight.
SIA’s flights to nowhere are expected to be two to three hours long. Since the amount of carbon emissions will differ with the type of aircraft used, how wide, new and packed they are, our best guess is to take a composite figure based on an illustrative route.
For example, flying from Singapore to Bangkok takes about 2.5 hours. And the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO)’s CO2 calculator estimates a figure of 105kg of CO2 per passenger.
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But looking at a flight’s carbon footprint only doesn’t take into account the other warming effects air traffic has on the planet. Planes also produce water vapour, aerosols and nitrogen oxides, as well as heat-trapping cirrus clouds.
Non-CO2 aircraft emissions are not well-understood, but a 1999 International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report estimated aviation’s total contribution to global warming to be two to four times higher than that of its carbon emissions alone.
In any case, the amount of CO2 emissions produced by a flight to nowhere works out to about 70 bottles of wine. At least the latter sounds more enjoyable than a cramped economy-class seat – and will go a long way, far longer than two to three hours.
Then again, I’m 1.85m tall and I get tipsy after two glasses, so your mileage may vary.
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What isn’t subjective, however, is that reducing unnecessary flights can and must be part of our approach to limit CO2 emissions between now and 2050, if we are to restrict the temperature rise of our planet within 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels.
This is the temperature level the world’s nations came together to set in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. And the UN Environment Programme’s Emission Gap Report 2019 indicates we have to reduce global GHG emissions from 55 gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2-equivalent in 2018 to between 25 and 41 GtCO2e by 2030.
Though COVID-19 has certainly put a dent in global GHG emissions, a May study published in science journal Nature found that global emissions would only fall by 7.5 per cent at most, if current restrictions are maintained until the end of the year.
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LONG-TERM CHALLENGES FACING AIR TRAVEL
The pandemic has shown there are new ways of doing our day-to-day tasks.
Working from home is becoming in norm for many desk jobs. Flying to conferences and meetings have been replaced by the ubiquitous Zoom.
When we do come out of the long and harrowing tunnel that is COVID-19, we will find that we can spend less time travelling and commuting.
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Though some level of rebound will happen for the aviation industry, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade association for airlines, forecasted in June that if COVID-19 related restrictions are maintained until the end of the year, it would take another four years for passenger traffic to return to 2019 levels.
Meanwhile, the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur high-speed railway, if and when completed, will be the first stage in an overland high-speed railway network covering most of our ASEAN neighbours.
If the experience in Western Europe and North Asia is instructive – along with the flight shaming movement gaining momentum in Europe – then high-speed rail may overtake short-haul intra-ASEAN flights in the future.
It may be worth SIA and Changi Airport rethinking their response to this long-term challenge in addition to battling the economic impact of COVID-19, including how Changi Airport Terminal 5 and having two civil airports (Seletar Airport being the other one) fit in.
Could land currently owned by Changi Airport be used to cultivate mangroves instead, to build a coastal defence against soil erosion and rising sea levels? Could SIA be better served focusing on intercontinental routes, even providing through-ticketing to high-speed rail in the future?
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GREEN SOLUTIONS FOR SIA
At the end of the day, there will still be some demand for flights, especially intercontinental and long-haul flights, when COVID-19 restrictions are eased.
Flying, for many, still represents the freedom from boundaries and the gateway to new experiences and opportunities. Flights to nowhere are also an experience some may crave, and perhaps would utilise planes that would have been flown anyway for maintenance purposes.
But the environmental cost of a flight to nowhere is still outweighed by that of air travel as a whole. There must be long-term green solutions when SIA’s business picks up again.
First, SIA should offset its CO2 and GHG emissions from all its flights ahead of its committed 2021 timeline to join the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Carbon Offset and Reduction Scheme.
British budget carrier EasyJet committed in October 2019 to offset CO2 emissions across its entire flight network. In January, British Airways announced it will offset all emissions of its domestic flights. Lufthansa also launched CO2-neutral flights for corporate customers travelling within Europe.
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SIA can purchase carbon offsets in bulk which adhere to reputable standards, such as Gold Standard and Verra, which ensure that carbon-offsetting projects do achieve the avoidance and reduction of emissions they claim to.
A quick look at the former’s retail website shows carbon credits can be purchased from as low as US$11 per tonne of CO2 from the Climate+ Portfolio composite offset. Given that SIA’s market positioning is in the premium full-service sector, the price of each ticket is unlikely to increase appreciably to customers, even if costs are passed to them.
Balance this against the added brand value of becoming one of the world’s pioneering net-zero airlines, and the benefits start to outweigh the costs.
Carbon offsets may seem like an unnecessary financial burden in tough times, but SIA has received substantial state assistance to help it tide over the COVID-19 crisis.
The Government announced S$750 million of support for the aviation sector in March, and an additional S$187 million later in August.
SIA also plans to raise up to S$15 billion through issuing new shares and convertible bonds, with the support of Temasek.
As a recipient of public funds, SIA should consider its social and environmental responsibilities.
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ALTERNATIVES TO FLIGHTS TO NOWHERE?
Beyond thinking long-term, SIA should consider greener alternatives to flights to nowhere. A group of young sustainability advocates has launched a #SaveSingaporeAirlines initiative to gather more eco-friendly ideas for SIA to generate business.
Some suggestions include offering dining experiences inside grounded planes, or behind-the-scenes tours into airport and flight operations.
Campaigns such as these reflect that SIA’s future clients are climate-conscious, and that the world, airlines included, is moving towards sustainability. Despite ongoing financial pressures, SIA is still an esteemed national carrier worthy of leading the aviation industry on this march.
Eric Bea is a researcher in environmental law at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Environmental Law, Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore. This article is written in the author’s personal capacity.