The Green Mobility Magazine team at Ibex Publishing recently had the opportunity to sit down with Dirk Singer, the esteemed Head of Sustainability at SimpliFlying. Dirk is a thought leader in sustainability within the aviation industry and has been pivotal in driving conversations around sustainable practices and innovations. With his wealth of experience and expertise, Dirk sheds light on the current landscape of sustainability in aviation, the challenges, and opportunities it presents. Best of all, we also got the chance to discuss his new book, Sustainability in the Air: Innovators Transforming Aviation for a Greener Future.
Dirk, let’s start with your background, have you always worked in the aviation industry?
I worked for 20+ years in London’s PR, advertising, and digital agencies, where I handled campaigns for everything from anti-virus software, to washing powder. However, ten or so years ago I started taking on aviation related accounts, in particular London Gatwick Airport, (the now gone) British Midland International and Manchester Airports Group. That led me into first doing content work for SimpliFlying on a freelance basis, and then for the past four years, leading its sustainability efforts.
Were you always interested in sustainability issues, both within and beyond the aviation industry?
On a passive level as a consumer, yes. However, my interest and engagement in sustainable aviation began in 2019 when ‘flight shaming’ started to become a trend in much of Europe. I saw this as a near existential threat for the industry and one we will have to get to grips with. I then wrote a report all about flight shaming, and that set me on my sustainability journey.
Do you think that your background in marketing has provided you with a unique approach to dealing with sustainability issues?
I definitely think the skills are transferable. For one thing, it’s useful to be able to distil sometimes quite technical terms down to a way in which consumers can understand. Because my previous roles also involved perception management, it also means I take the time to understand the arguments and aims of environmental groups in opposition to the industry – something that’s not always the case within aviation.
More broadly speaking, numerous Sr. sustainability managers in the airline industry come from a public relations background. Do you think that public relations and communications professionals are, in general, best placed to deal with sustainability issues within the aviation industry?
I don’t think there is any right or wrong answer here. Sustainability management is quite a new practice, so even though there are now an increasing number of degrees on this topic, most of us are self-taught – as I am. However, in future years, I see that changing with a more structured career path into the industry
Provided your wealth of marketing, sustainability, and airline experience, do you think that sector stakeholders have, hitherto, been successful in communicating and discussing the sustainability challenges facing the aviation industry?
Some do it well, some not so well. Among airlines, I’d highlight easyJet, which has a good relationship with environmental NGOs and ambitious targets. Also, JetBlue who we feature in the book, is quite climate aware at a senior level and is doing some good work through its VC arm, JetBlue Ventures. On the other hand, I still see some executives falling back on the “it’s only 2%!” argument, which I always say we should not be using.
You recently co-authored a book, along with your college Shshank Nigam, titled ‘Sustainability in the Air: Innovators Transforming Aviation for a Greener Future’, in 2 sentences or less, what is this book about?
Sustainability in the Air is a book about innovators driving the industry towards a net zero future. Nine chapters look at a mix of outsiders, start-ups with new technology, and insiders, established industry players.
What drove you to write this book?
Without glossing over the many challenges that the industry faces, we wanted to help amplify some of the inspiring stories that exist among the many companies trying to move aviation away from fossil fuels. The book also has a wider applicability outside aviation, as many of the lessons are relevant to anyone looking to start a product and bring it to commercialisation in the climate tech space.
How did your peers, or stakeholders, respond to the news that you were writing this book?
It is early days, but so far the response we’ve had has been positive. There seems to be a realisation that a book like this was needed.
Did you learn anything particularly surprising about the sector in researching and writing this book?
Whatever the problem – and there are many – someone is already working towards a solution. For example: Electric battery energy density? There are companies in China and the US pushing the envelope on what’s possible with batteries. The cost of green hydrogen? A number of startups are making green H2 cheaper than ever through new electrolyses.
In the book, you look at numerous startups working to bring electric and hydrogen powered aircraft to market. Are you confident that these types young and innovative companies will succeed in bringing their aircraft to market? What is holding them back?
In a word, money. Building a completely new aircraft can cost $1 billion or more from start to finish. That’s because a startup in this sector is not like a normal startup. It takes years to design, build, certify an aircraft and you need highly qualified (and paid) personnel to do so, during which time you are selling nothing. That is the single biggest factor holding companies back.
Who do you think should finance the transition towards more sustainable aviation?
The aviation industry can’t do this on its own, with thin margins meaning an average profit per passenger of $2.50. At the same time, under the polluter pays principle it is fair that airlines face some kind of carbon pricing. As a result, ideally, it needs to be done through a combination of government incentives and regulation with higher emissions meaning higher charges. With cleantech as a whole representing a $1 trillion opportunity, there is also considerable scope for investors and venture capital to get involved.
In the book, you also called for the introduction of a “climate levy”. Are you suggesting that governments should use taxation as a demand management tool? Should flying, in your eyes, become more unaffordable for the masses?
Any climate levy should apply to people who fly the most, including myself. It shouldn’t apply to a family going for their annual holiday to Tenerife, or to someone in the so-called Global South flying for the first time. The ICCT has in fact published a proposal for such a levy, which it says could raise 80% of the $4 trillion that will be needed to decarbonise aviation.
Overall, are you confident that the aviation industry can meet its current climate targets?
The technology certainly exists, so the means is there. I sometimes wonder about the will. At times there’s still a tendency to try and kick the can down the road, avoid taking tough decisions, and making this someone else’s problems.
Do you believe that the current aviation climate targets are sufficient to mitigate and overcome the challenges of climate change?
The targets are not the issue, the means, and the willingness to get there are.