Could UK startup Fly POP become the world's first 'carbon neutral' airline?

Fly POP hopes to begin offering fully carbon-offset flights between Stansted Airport and the Indian cities of Ahmedabad and Amritsar next year.

The global aviation industry now stands at a critical juncture with regards to its environmental responsibilities. Replacing traditional jet fuel with sustainable alternatives, while possible in the long term, is likely to cost billions and have a major impact on global biofuel resources. Yet it is broadly accepted across the industry that concerted action to reduce aviation emissions is urgently needed. The fast-growing global aviation industry produces around two per cent of all human-induced CO2 emissions, with flights worldwide generating an estimated 705 million tonnes of CO2 a year, according to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

That is why global leaders and campaigners have urged industry representatives to ensure next week’s ICAO summit – at which there is hope of thrashing out a global market-based measure to reduce and offset emissions from the sector – ends in a successful deal.

But, whatever the outcome of that summit, UK-based startup POP (People Over Profit) is hoping to trump all the major global carriers lining up to voice their support for the ICAO agreement and its proposed Global Market Based Mechanism (GMBM) with a far more ambitious carbon offsetting plan.

“As far as I’m concerned there shouldn’t be any airline or haulage business – or any business – that actually operates by polluting the environment,” says chairman and founding partner of POP, Nino Judge. “It should be part of every business’s charter to protect the environment as well as make profit.”

Indeed, by donating a major chunk of its profits to charitable causes and carbon offsetting projects, POP is aiming to become the world’s first international ‘carbon neutral’ airline – both within its internal operations and through its long-haul flights to India.

“There’s no reason for any company not to be carbon neutral these days,” Judge tells BusinessGreen. “It just comes down to priorities. You either give it all away as a dividend to shareholders, or you make yourself carbon neutral. It’s not a conflict of interest at all to me, it’s coming out of the 51 per cent of profits we’re giving away.”

Judge says “80 per cent” of the financing – partly through crowdfunding – is now in place for POP to start operating its first flights between Stansted Airport and the Indian cities of Amritsar,  Punjab, and Ahmedabad in Gujarat, next year, and he hopes to have the remaining investment agreed in the coming weeks.

Currently, people wishing to travel from the UK to these two cities in India face journeys of up to 18 hours via connecting flights in New Delhi or Qatar. But POP hopes to halve these travel times by offering direct flights from Stansted, capitalising on growing demand from the UK’s Indian and South Asian communities to visit friends and relatives living outside India’s main cities, not to mention increased demand from business travellers keen to tap into the subcontinent’s huge potential markets.

Judge’s business plan is to start by leasing its first Airbus A330-300 passenger plane during the first quarter of next year that would fly every other day from Stansted, alternating between Amritsar and Ahmedabad. Then within three months, once the business model is established, Judge plans to lease a second plane, before gradually building up services from there, leasing another aircraft every six months.

“We basically shore up the destinations once we see the demand is there and throw a dedicated aircraft to that route,” he explains. “We totally intend this to be an international airline, with at least six aircraft in three years, and we’re hoping to reach 100 aircraft in 10.”

Many airlines already offer voluntary carbon offsetting schemes, through which passengers can choose to pay a little extra to donate money towards accredited projects, such as renewable energy developments.

However, by donating half of the company’s net profits to charitable and offsetting projects close to the communities served by POP’s flights, Judge believes he can cultivate a loyal customer base, who he says won’t be paying any extra out of their own pocket to offset their emissions.

“We’re saying ‘don’t give us any extra money, just point your purchasing powers to us, then we will spend our profit on good causes’ – that’s the differentiator,” says Judge. “I’m convinced through all the research we’ve done that as long as the product is right, any company with the right CSR credentials and the right environmental credentials ends up having the most loyal customer base. We’re hoping that having the right CSR and environmental credentials will actually be a point of sale.”

And, he adds, there are already signs his hypothesis will prove to be justified. “The interest in the company and our services is huge – absolutely huge,” he says. “If we could sell tickets now, we would be sold out.”