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Many of the largest U.K.-based companies during the past two years have used senior manager mandates to cut the number of flights they take for business, and representatives from some agreed that doing so need not harm profits or competitive positioning, according to a new report. Published by nonprofit conservation group World Wide Fund-UK, a survey of 158 of the 500 biggest companies in the United Kingdom (measured by market capitalization) found that 47 percent had cut business flights and 63 percent have in place or plan to enact a policy for reducing business flights. Though effects of the economic recession clearly have been a significant contributing factor, the survey also found that most respondents either are cutting (68 percent) or intend to cut (18 percent) their business travel's carbon footprint.
"It's clear that change is being driven from the top and that businesses have made board-level decisions to reduce their business flights," according to WWF's report. "We're seeing a new approach to business travel and meeting practices." For example, of those companies that have reduced flights, 85 percent "do not intend to return to 'business as usual' levels of flying." Ninety-two percent from that same group agreed that "it is possible to fly less as an organization and remain both profitable and competitive."
WWF's September-November 2010 survey was conducted by market research firm Critical Research. It found that long-haul flights were most likely to be cut, with 61 percent of responding companies indicating such flying had been slightly or significantly reduced during the past two years (compared with 40 percent saying their companies cut domestic U.K. flights and 33 percent that cut short-haul flights to Continental Europe).
Many of the longest flights have been supplanted by remote conferencing technologies. Sixty-two percent cited "more audioconferencing" as one means their companies used to replace long-haul flying while 60 percent listed "more videoconferencing" and 47 percent indicated "more web conferencing."
"As the [remote] technology improves and staff become more familiar with it, further uptake is expected," WWF concluded. "Tax incentives to reduce the cost of videoconferencing and tax exemptions for company 'green schemes' to encourage staff to hold more virtual meetings were also seen as important in reducing business travel."
Overall, nearly all respondents said they expected their companies during the next 10 years to change how they conduct business "as a result of climate change." About half of the survey sample said policies that encourage sustainable business travel already are in place. Another 25 percent said their companies are developing such policies or plan to do so.
Train travel is one such measure, and researchers concluded that "businesses would like to see a more affordable and efficient rail network in the United Kingdom and Europe." Improvements in U.K. and European rail networks already have "contributed to a modal shift from the plane to the train, especially for domestic flights and only marginally less so for short-haul flights."
WWF argued that rail travel should continue to replace short-haul air flights, enabling airports to "free up capacity for other destinations which are not so easily replaced by train." The organization repeated its call for "more efficiently run airports, not bigger ones."
"With so many of the U.K.'s largest companies saying that they can remain profitable and competitive while flying less, and the widespread and continuing corporate commitment to flying less, the economic case for significant expansion of U.K. airports remains in doubt," WWF stated.
The WWF report detailed a few companies' efforts to reduce business flights. Mobile communications company BT, for example, used some of its own technologiesand last year became the first company to meet WWF's One In Five Challengeto cut business flights by at least 20 percent. "Home and remote working is now standard business practice for many BT employees," according to the WWF report. "BT encourages its employees to use low-carbon travel and to use BT's conferencing facilities wherever possible to avoid travel altogether." Moreover, all air travel must be "pre-authorized." BT by 2020 seeks to reduce its overall worldwide CO2 emissions by 80 percent from 1997 levels.
Similarly, Vodafone UK--"by utilizing its own technology" and encouraging employees "to work flexibly"using those and other technologies--in just one year cut 26.1 percent of its business flights, about one-third of its travel costs and 617 metric tons of carbon emissions, according to WWF. The company invested £600,000 in videoconferencing facilities and reported that for the first five months of 2010, employees logged 3,600 hours in videoconferences and cut their travel by 320,000 kilometers. Vodafone's "flight-reduction targets were set in line with cost-reduction initiatives maximizing the financial benefits of flying less," according to the report. "Employees were encouraged to question the need for travel through rigorous travel sign-off procedures, and consider low-carbon alternatives."
At GlaxoSmithKline, "6 million trees are needed to absorb the amount of CO2 generated" by the employee business travel, according to Brett Fulford, the company's director of environmental sustainability. To reduce business travel, GlaxoSmithKline invested in teleconference equipment, desktop and personal videoconference units, webconferencing and 500 videoconference rooms in 16 countries--including 16 "premium telepresence conference rooms." Fulford noted that the company in 2010 increased videoconferencing 40 percent year over year and that the investment in the technology has helped the GlaxoSmithKline cut its carbon output by 7,151 metric tons.
Public transport company FirstGroup since 2009 has been cutting business travel following the introduction of a new travel policy that encourages staff to "utilize the company's extensive audio and videoconferencing facilities, questioning the need to fly," according to FirstGroup head of corporate social responsibility Terri Vogt. "All flights now require pre-authorization to ensure that alternatives to travel have been considered." The company in its 2009/2010 fiscal year increased audiconferencing by 30 percent and cut one-third of its business flights, generating a travel spend reduction of 40 percent. At the same time, FirstGroup cut CO2 emissions "associated with business air travel" by 57 percent.
Moving forward, the majority of those surveyed by WWF said they expect to further reduce business travel during the next two years. The most cited means for achieving such cuts were remote conferencing technologies, fewer domestic and short-haul flights, and more train travel. "While 'home working' and 'less long-haul air travel' were less likely to be mentioned, over half of all companies still referred to them," according to WWF.
Researchers also asked participants to identify the obstacles hindering sustainable business travel practices and found that "by far the most frequently mentioned was client insistence on travel and face-to-face meetings." Other hurdles cited by respondents included "lack of familiarity with/lack of availability/poor quality of videoconferencing" and "the cost/inconvenience of rail travel."
Meanwhile, when asked about U.K. government initiatives that would encourage alternatives to business flying, 84 percent of respondents identified "nationwide provision of high-speed broadband," 81 percent cited improvements to the rail network and 70 percent indicated that the government "should do more to encourage firms to invest in videoconferencing equipment.
The article originally was published in Business Travel News
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