• Flying is perceived as one of the hardest sectors to decarbonise since sourcing sustainable fuels is complicated, and the large-scale adoption of hydrogen or electric planes is still years away.
  • Our media analysis found that while each potential solution to aviation sustainability offered by companies like Boeing and Airbus received positive media attention, they also faced significant technical, logistical, and economic challenges that were frequently scrutinised by journalists.
  • We also found that carbon offsetting and accusations of greenwashing were the most contentious issues within the most recent media narrative, as publications were increasingly vigilant about exposing airlines that make misleading green claims.

View a one-page infographic summary of the analysis

The media narrative around the aviation industry’s sustainability push is a high-altitude chess game, a challenging landscape that PR and communications professionals must navigate with precision and foresight. Flying is widely accepted as one of the hardest sectors – along with shipping and agriculture – to decarbonise, since sourcing sustainable fuels is complicated, and hydrogen or electric planes are still years away.

While the industry has taken commendable strides towards sustainability, the path is fraught with myriad challenges. These challenges aren’t merely technical or logistical; they’re reputational landmines that could explode with just one wrong move.

To distil the pertinent insights PR and comms pros should know, we analysed 1,600 English-language articles published in top-tier media outlets in the last year. Here’s what we found:

1. Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs): from promising game-changer to potential pitfall

SAFs are sparking intense debates, touted as a silver bullet to decarbonise aviation. The media is abuzz with the potential of these fuels, derived from sustainable sources like waste oils, non-edible crops, or even captured CO2, thus sidestepping the environmental nightmares of fossil fuels.

SAFs were actually the main topic in our media sample, overshadowing other solutions:

SAF’s potential is a narrative that PR professionals have been quick to champion, leveraging the positive media attention to bolster their brands. In fact, the most influential companies in the debate gained their media impact with their new SAF developments.

We determine an organisation’s media impact in the context of a topic by looking at its media influence score calculated in terms of coverage by high-profile media outlets, topic relevancy score measuring its contextual relevance, and media visibility as measured by the number of mentions.

Boeing emerged first as it purchased 21.2 million litres of blended sustainable aviation fuel produced by Neste, the world’s leading SAF producer, to support its U.S. commercial operations through 2023. These agreements more than doubled Boeing‘s SAF procurement from last year.

Meanwhile, Airbus made headlines for carrying out the world’s first 100% SAF flight with the Royal Air Force using an in-service military aircraft. 

But beware: the media narrative is far from one-sided. SAFs, while promising, come with their own set of challenges which are under media scrutiny. They are currently significantly more expensive than conventional jet fuel, making them less attractive to cost-conscious airlines. This is a narrative that can quickly turn against airlines if not handled delicately. PR and comms professionals need to balance optimism with transparency about these challenges.

Moreover, there’s the daunting task of producing SAFs at scale. Current production barely scratches the surface of what would be needed to replace conventional jet fuel, a fact that the media is not shying away from. A misstep here could see a brand accused of empty promises and greenwashing.

2. Electric aircraft: the double-edged sword of innovation

Electric aircraft are also frequently hailed as the future of sustainable aviation, and the media can’t get enough of them. PR professionals have been quick to capitalise on this positive coverage, showcasing their brands as pioneers in reducing or even eliminating aviation’s carbon emissions.

The electric narrative took off when the world’s first all-electric passenger plane successfully took to the sky at the end of 2022. With battery technology similar to that of an electric car or a cell phone and 30 minutes of charging, the nine-passenger plane was able to fly for one hour to two hours.

In our media sample, American Airlines gained positive media attention for investing in UK-based electric aircraft maker Vertical Aerospace and ordering as many as 250 electric planes for $1 billion. Similarly, Air Canada entered the conversation by purchasing 30 electric-hybrid regional aircraft from Swedish startup Heart Aerospace.

However, the media was equally quick to shine a spotlight on the significant barriers facing electric aviation, particularly the limitations of current battery technology. Batteries still lag far behind fossil fuels in terms of energy density, which limits the range and payload of electric aircraft. Media discussions often focused on the need for advances in battery technology to make electric aviation viable for larger aircraft and longer flights.

As such, this narrative resembled the debate around electric vehicle batteries which we recently analysed.

3. Hydrogen planes: the high-risk, high-reward gamble

Hydrogen planes, with their potential for zero CO2 emissions, are also fast becoming the media’s darling in discussions on sustainable aviation. As a fuel, hydrogen produces no CO2 emissions, making it an attractive prospect for a decarbonised aviation industry. Interestingly, we found that hydrogen was discussed much more frequently as a solution for planes than for cars.

Startup ZeroAvia made numerous headlines in January when it successfully flew the largest-ever hydrogen-electric powered aircraft. The news made ZeroAvia founder and CEO Val Miftakhov the most influential corporate spokesperson in the debate:

Val Miftakhov was widely cited as saying that this was a major moment, not just for ZeroAvia, but for the aviation industry as a whole, as it shows that true zero-emission commercial flight is only a few years away.

Other companies that capitalised on that trend were EasyJet and Rolls-Royce, which successfully tested a converted jet engine running on hydrogen for the first time. Meanwhile, Airbus partnered with Air New Zealand to become New Zealand’s key hydrogen ecosystem player.

However, the media also underscored the significant technical and logistical challenges involved in making hydrogen aviation a reality. Storing hydrogen requires either high pressures, low temperatures, or both, which can pose design and safety challenges. Hydrogen’s lower energy density by volume compared to jet fuel also means that hydrogen planes may need to be substantially redesigned.

Another frequently discussed point was the need for a massive infrastructure overhaul to produce, distribute, and store hydrogen at airports. Moreover, many commentators noted that to be truly sustainable, hydrogen needs to be produced using renewable energy.

4. Carbon offsetting: the controversial middle ground

Carbon offsetting in the aviation industry is a topic often fraught with controversy in the media. On one hand, offsetting is presented as a pragmatic approach for airlines to neutralize their carbon emissions, given the current lack of scalable low-carbon technologies.

Many airlines offer passengers the opportunity to offset their share of the flight’s emissions, often by investing in projects such as reforestation, renewable energy, or community development. Success stories of these projects have often been highlighted in the media as evidence of the potential benefits of offsetting.

For example, British Airways gained positive media attention for making it easier for its customers to carbon offset their flights with a new online tool. In the meantime, Lufthansa introduced a new fare class that includes carbon offsets in the price.

On the other hand, the media often scrutinised the effectiveness and integrity of carbon offset schemes. Some reports questioned whether these projects genuinely deliver the promised emission reductions, or whether they may have occurred even without the offset funding. The lack of standardised regulations and transparency around offset projects is another common theme in media discussions.

Last year, a joint investigation by the Guardian revealed that major airlines like EasyJet were using unreliable “phantom” carbon credits to claim their flights were carbon neutral. As a response, EasyJet said it would no longer pay for offsets for bookings made after December 2022.

We also found that the media often framed offsetting as a stopgap measure rather than a long-term solution. Many argued that the primary focus should be on reducing emissions directly, rather than compensating for them. In this light, offsetting was sometimes portrayed as a way for the aviation industry to delay more substantial changes.

5. Greenwashing: the ticking time bomb

The media has sharpened its focus on greenwashing in aviation, or the practice of making misleading or unsubstantiated claims about the environmental benefits of a product, service, technology, or company practice.

Critics have become increasingly savvy, leveraging the power of investigative journalism and social media to expose instances of greenwashing. This places additional pressure on aviation companies to ensure their sustainability claims are not just verifiable and accurate but also meaningful in the context of their overall environmental messaging.

A recent example that resulted in a media storm occurred In February when the UK Advertising Standards Authority hit out at Lufthansa for a poster advertisement that it said made “misleading” environmental claims about the German airline “protecting” the planet. The ad, which ran last June, featured an aircraft with the underside replaced by an image of the Earth, alongside the slogan “Lufthansa Group. Connecting the world. Protecting its future.”

The Advertising Standards Authority said that they considered the claim was likely to be understood by consumers to mean that Lufthansa had already taken significant mitigating steps to ensure that the net environmental impact of their business was not harmful, asking it to make clear the basis for any future claims.

Similarly, British Airways and EasyJet were recently accused of relying on ‘false and inefficient’ solutions such as ‘carbon neutrality’, carbon offsetting, and sustainable aviation fuels to tackle emissions. Meanwhile, Ryanair was accused of greenwashing after the UK advertising watchdog banned an ad campaign claiming that the airline has the lowest carbon emissions of any major airline in Europe.

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