Heading into 2019, one trend in the industry that we're keeping a close eye on is the desire for more sustainable, environmentally-friendly travel options.
Sustainability means different things to different people. For some it's a case of recycling and using public transport, for others it means going full Vegan and never setting foot in a car again.
The sad fact is that air travel is one of the most destructive consumer habits, at least in terms of its carbon footprint. But let's face it: It's not going to stop anytime soon, particularly as the global travel industry relies so heavily upon it.
Instead, travellers are looking for operators, accommodation and experiences that have a sustainability ethos in line with their own environmental ethics and concerns. This might mean finding an activity to do in another country that goes hand in hand with conservation: volunteering at a monkey sanctuary, planting trees, that kind of thing.
But, as we explored last summer, the wider industry is slowly waking up to a simple truth: protecting the natural world goes hand in hand with the travel industry's long-term future.
Because of that, hotels and airlines are taking steps to make their operations greener. Last year, Alaska Airlines became the first airline in the US to ban straws on its flights. RyanAir pledged to become plastic free by 2023 as part of a five year ‘Always Getting Better’ plan.
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Hilton announced plans to eliminate the use of straws in all of its 650 global accommodations, as well as plastic bottles from its conferences, by the end of 2018.
So things are going in the right direction, particularly with regards to single-use plastic waste - so often an unnecessary luxury that the majority of travellers can do without and won't miss too much.
Which brings us to wet-lease specialist Hi Fly. The Portuguese company is a go-to organization for airlines when they need extra capacity in the short to medium term or during peak season, as well as an on-demand carrier for government officials and defence personnel.
The Hi Fly brand is operated by two affiliated airlines, one based in Portugal and the other in Malta.
To top off all of that positive environmental travel news in 2018, at the end of the year Hi Fly operated the first-ever passenger flight without a single single-use plastic item on board.
The ‘plastics-free’ trial involved four flights by Hi Fly’s Airbus A340. The first flew into the history books on December 26th when it took off from Lisbon on its way to Natal, Brazil.
Over 700 passengers took part in the trial overall.
We couldn't be prouder of being the first airline to perform a completely Single Use Plastic Free Flight. The first step to our ultimate goal to turn all our flights completely Single Use #PlasticFree by the end of 2019. #TurntheTideonPlastic #A340 #9HSUN pic.twitter.com/sTLl6eDCBk— Hi Fly (@hifly_airline) December 27, 2018
Hi Fly President Paulo Mirpuri said the move was just the beginning, as part of the airline's wider environmental ambitions. “This historic Hi Fly flight, without any single-use plastic items on board, underlines our commitment to making Hi Fly the world’s first ‘plastics-free’ airline within 12 months," he said.
“We take that commitment very seriously. We are obviously excited and delighted that Hi Fly will be the first airline to attempt such a feat." - Hi Fly President Paulo Mirpuri.
It may well be that Hi Fly's relatively small operation makes it a lot easier to make these kind of wholesale changes.
Having said that, its bigger competitors have reacted to the news with similar commitments. As touched upon earlier, RyanAir's five-year plan to become "the greenest airline" will soon mean "initiatives such as a switch to wooden cutlery, bio-degradable coffee cups, and the removal of plastics from our range of in-flight products,” according to chief marketing officer Kenny Jacobs.
Rival easyJet also confirmed this week that they are "currently introducing new hot drinks cups which use a plant-based lining and are compostable and replacing plastic drinks stirrers and spoons with wooden alternatives," speaking to Telegraph Travel.
"These are the first steps in a wider programme to review and where possible replace single-use plastic items on our flights. We also already offer a 50p discount on hot drinks for customers who use their own reusable cup."
The human footprint left behind at some of the world's most popular travel destinations is bad enough. But the trouble with plastics and their increasing concentration in our oceans is that they are likely to wash up in all sorts of places.
Single-use plastics, such as shopping bags and drinking straws, represent the epitome of our globalised, consumerist world: Cheap enough to make and use to be totally disposable, but everpresent and totally non-biodegradable. The result is that they clog up the very places travellers want to travel to.
Not to mention their impact on the natural world. One million seabirds die each year die from ingesting plastic, for example.
"Our corporate mission is based around sustainability and we work hand in glove with the Mirpuri Foundation to make sure that our corporate practices match our wider responsibilities to the planet," says Hi Fly President Paulo Mirpuri.
“The test flights will prevent around 350 KG of single-use, virtually indestructible plastics from poisoning our environment. Over 100,000 flights take off each day around the world and, last year, commercial aircraft carried nearly four billion passengers. This number is expected to double again in less than 20 years. So, the potential to make a difference here is clearly enormous."
“We know we may encounter some initial teething problems, but we are confident of addressing these over the coming months. We know, too, from the feedback we have received from client airlines and passengers, that it’s the right thing for the airline to be doing."
Pedro Ramos, the Director-General of Tour operator Alto Astral, the company who chartered the flights between Lisbon and Brazil, said he was delighted that his company had participated in what amounts to a small but key industry event.
“Everyone at Alto Astral is excited to be involved in this adventure and we believe that future generations will thank those of us who have been prepared to stand up to try to make a difference now. Hi Fly has long been the leader in the field of corporate environmental responsibility and sustainability, and they have rightly identified, as a key objective, the early elimination of plastics pollution. It’s been great for us to see how, in practical terms, they have gone about replacing so much in order to kick-start this elimination process."
“All together for a better world, we say.” - Pedro Ramos, Director-General of Tour operator Alto Astral.
So what does plastic-free mean in reality?
Well, among the many single-use plastic items that have been replaced are cups, spoons, salt and pepper shakers, sick bags, packaging for bedding, dishes, individual butter pots, soft drink bottles and toothbrushes.
Put that way, you can see why making the shift across a huge airline is going to be a big task. Finding the right suppliers around the world is no mean feat. But at the same time, it's also a sign of how small changes can make a big difference.
Hi Fly's environmental team used bamboo cutlery, no shortage of paper packaging and containers that, once used, could be easily composted.
The first plastics-free test flight was Hi Fly first major step to making its entire fleet ‘plastics free’ by the end of 2019. For the global players in the travel industry, these steps are tricky to implement but easy to justify. And with a groundswell of traveller opinion in support of moves just like this, hopefully all of our travel will be looking greener in the near future.