When it comes to our global environmental concerns, air travel has long been one of the guiltiest parties—contributing to more than 2.5 percent of worldwide carbon emissions. While the industry is making strides with a goal of reaching net zero by 2050, right now it’s up to each individual to make the most earth-friendly choices when planning their travels.
But there's a stark generational difference when it comes to prioritizing sustainability when booking flights, according to a new study from from flight data analysis company OAG released today. While 20 percent of millennials say that they are putting greener choices first with air travel, only one percent of baby boomers are doing the same.
“There seems to be a greater level of awareness amongst younger generations of sustainability generally,” says John Grant, OAG’s chief data analyst. “We suspect that the increasing levels of discussion globally, increased media coverage, and research around the subject resonates with the younger generation who see both their futures and the planet impacted by what we are doing now.”
Meanwhile, 17 percent of Gen Z is taking sustainability into account, as are 10 percent of Gen Xers. For this study, generations were divided by age, with 18 to 24 year olds being classified as Gen Z; 25 to 39 year olds as millennials; 40 to 56 year olds as Gen X; and those older than 56 as baby boomers.
“In the context of time, a 20-year difference between a Generation X and Z traveler is small," says Grant. “But in terms of mindset, awareness, and exposure to an issue that they see facing them every day,” the differences are notable when it comes to prioritizing airlines that are gentler on the environment.
For the elder generations, some more tangible concerns were more important when choosing an airline. The survey asked members of each generation how a variety of factors would affect their airline loyalty. For baby boomers, 47 percent ranked ticket costs as their first priority when booking. When asked how flight routes affected airline loyalty, 34 percent of the boomers polled reported changing their preferred carrier to access more schedules and destination options. Across other booking priorities, like delays and cancellations, 32 percent of boomers said they switched loyalty to an airline after experiencing significant disruptions. Other factors that beat sustainability as a reason for boomers to switch to a new carrier included the onboard experience (with 20 percent of boomers saying it was a priority for them) and the airline's customer service (17 percent said it was important).
Gen Xers still put budget concerns first, with 69 percent ranking ticket costs as their top factor for choosing airlines. The onboard experience is a priority for 32 percent of Gen Xers, as is a smooth travel experience: 31 percent said they would change airlines after experiencing flight disruptions. As for destinations, 30 percent of the generation said they might choose an airline for better routes. Customer service is also an important factor for them, with 19 percent of Gen Xers saying it's an important factor in choosing an airline. All the categories were ahead of the 10 percent of the generation who prioritized an airline for sustainability.
Millennials did put ticket price, travel disruption, and destination ahead of the 20 percent who prioritized sustainability—but the category ranked ahead of the 18 percent who said they select a carrier for onboard experience, and the 10 percent for its customer service.
“The selection of any flight choice is complex—carbon emissions, price, travel time, departure time, etc., all influence choice, and each decision is personal and very nuanced,” Grant says. “I think the important point is that five years ago, carbon emissions per flight would not have been a factor for the vast majority of travelers, but that is now changing and will continue to be a factor in the industry.”
The data was released today as a part of the OAG’s Loyalty and Disruption: The New Age of Travel study, which surveyed 2,000 North American travelers in April 2023 to find out what considerations are made when it comes to airline loyalty.
The survey also found that Gen Z and millennials are willing to hop airlines and choose the best deals while baby boomers tend to remain more loyal, and that travelers are most loyal to American (28 percent), Delta (24 percent), United (17 percent), and Southwest (13 percent).
The reasons for traveling also varies by generation. The majority of baby boomers and Gen Xers (76 percent and 66 percent, respectively) travel for pleasure, while 30 percent of millennials are booking flights for business.