Sustainable Flying? The Airline Whisperer Lifts the Aviation Industry


Can flying to our dream destinations ever become sustainable? One Planet Journey reveals everything you need to know about sustainability in the air by talking to Shashank Nigam, the man with sustainable aviation fuel in his veins.


What is the most stolen item on a plane?

Of course, it depends on the airline, and the answer can help executives better understand what makes their company unique, and remarkable, in the eyes of travellers. Maybe you have the salt and pepper shaker stating, “proudly nicked from Virgin Atlantic”, on your dinner table? 😀

Time and time again, best-selling author Shashank Nigam and his team at SimpliFlying, have demonstrated impressive intuition and comprehension on how to keep airlines soaring. The use of social media as a customer service channel, providing health and safety audits during the pandemic, and now, accelerating a path to sustainability. They know what questions to ask when establishing trust with consumers is on the agenda.

Profile picture of Shashank Nigam.
Shashank Nigam – Founder of SimpliFlying. Credit: SimpliFlying.


SimpliFlying, the company Shashank started out of his bedroom 15 years ago, has worked with over 100 airlines, helped launch new aircraft models, and consistently delivers world-class strategy work. Shashank Nigam is the man the airline executives turn to when the tough gets going. And he doesn’t come up short. Today, the aviation industry finds itself in an existential crisis, working to decarbonise its operations and maintain a moral licence to operate. SimpliFlying has sprung to action, making sustainable flying a clarion call for the next decade and a half. Can it be done? Let’s take off and find out.


It’s a bird! It’s Superman! No, it’s a plane!

I suspect the intense passion for aviation, crafted from childhood while observing airplanes at the Changi Airport in Singapore, laid the foundation for Shashank’s success. He even remembers the number of the bus route (858) that took him out there, watching the skies from the giant windows in Terminal 1, in between completing his school work.

Apart from the occasional family holiday to New Delhi, actual flying experience came later. Lots of it, in fact. Being an in-demand individual, Shashank clocked up to 75 flights a year in 2014-2015. But with increasing consciousness around sustainability, especially how big of an impact it has on your personal carbon budget, he’s now cut it to 15 or fewer per year. But, Shashank and SimpliFlying didn’t become trusted voices on sustainable flying purely because of moral convictions. They’ve earned the trust of the industry based on 15 years of hard work, delivering future-proofing strategies, workshops, and training to clients. All during a time when the entire sector has faced fierce headwinds.

Group picture in front of a barge in London.
The SimpliFlying team at a podcast recording. Credit:SimpliFlying 


SimpliFlying, headquartered in Singapore, is a 100% remote team with staff in the UK, India, Spain and Canada. Aside from aviation expertise, the business is a leading example of how to maintain a strong and positive company culture. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, Shashank says, quoting management guru, Peter Drucker.

He’s worked hard to keep the team agile, and not too large. It’s resulted in an organisation that punches above its weight, with several colleagues enjoying long stints at the company. The COO started as an intern 14 years ago, and many have returned after spells at startups and airlines. The sticky culture comes from a focus on personal growth, responsibility, compulsory vacation policies, and daily stand up calls that fit everyone’s time zone. London-based Shashank expresses great pride in the team when I ask him about the best experience related to running SimpliFlying. A group of people who trust and respect each other can achieve amazing results, and so they have.


From Blog to Sustainable Aviation Experts

Business success stems from a combination of grit, timing, luck, and passion. Shashank Nigam took a love for planes, technology, and branding, documented it through personal musings on a blog, and crafted a powerful voice in the industry. The 2010 volcano eruption in Iceland had airlines scrambling to answer stranded customers and had to use Twitter as a customer service channel. Facebook and YouTube also became essential for promotion and selling, and to better navigate and understand this unfamiliar landscape, Shashank and SimpliFlying stepped in with consulting services, helping airlines establish trust with their digital strategies.

When the pandemic reared its ugly head, the company had become a go to source, but with business down 98% within weeks, they had to reinvent themselves. And so they did. Shashank and his team launched the world’s first Covid-era health and safety audit for airlines on 65 essential measures. Consumer confidence once again proved vital. Companies rushed to avail themselves of SimpliFlying’s services as wary customers wanted clarity and a stamp of approval regarding health and safety procedures.

Man in mask spraying inside of airplane.
Ready and clean for pandemic flights. Credit: Marian Lockhart, Boeing.


Without a doubt, we are at another such inflection point today. I am, of course, talking about how to make flying sustainable, the biggest long-term challenge facing the industry.

“Airlines have to get this right, both in terms of effort and communication. One wrong move and you lose trust.”

In recent times, the sector has faced frequent greenwashing accusations, and for those making headway, this may cause greenhushing, meaning playing down sustainability efforts to avoid criticism and scrutiny. While the industry’s contribution to global emissions stands at 2.5-3% today (World Economic Forum, Dec 2022), it’s the future that has everyone scrambling.

With slow implementation of the Paris agreement 1.5 Celsius target, airlines have to make the necessary investments now, and continue investing each year. Because here comes the scary numbers. By 2050, when the amount of planes in the air has doubled, and other major industries have decarbonised faster, the aviation sector could represent almost 25% (Energy Transitions Commission, July 2022) of global emissions. It’s a conversation and scenario the industry wants to avoid, as its social licence to operate would be called into serious question.


SimpliFlying launched their sustainability practice 18 months ago, now the fastest growing part of the business. Client work includes roadmaps and communication for different stakeholders, preparing CEOs and management for questions on sustainable practices, and also hosting an appreciated podcast on the topic.

I believe Shashank’s, and SimpliFlying’s high flying reputation as sustainability advocates, stems from their already established work in the industry. They know airlines and aviation inside and out, meaning suggested strategies have a higher chance of adoption. With that in mind, let’s dig deeper into the questions you have in relation to sustainable flying.


Sustainability in the Air

“Any airline worth its salt should lock in sustainable aviation fuel contracts right now, while stocks last.”

Can air travel become green? To answer this question, consider the time horizon and to what extent. 100%? Tough, not even electric cars, come close to that number, because of the manufacturing process, rubber particles from the wheel, and the minerals needed for the batteries. As facts often get lost in translation in the heated debate, let’s break down the principal strategies to understand what sustainable flying means.


Operational efficiency improvements 

Achieving large emissions cuts doesn’t come easy with today’s technology, which is why operational efficiencies represent more immediate action. To lower fuel consumption, airlines utilise an array of methods;

  • Eco-piloting measures such as single engine taxi, or even using new taxi-bots where airplanes can have both engines off while on the ground.

  • Optimised flight planning and better coordination with air traffic control, for example, to reduce holding time and varying altitude based on real-time weather and airspace restrictions.

  • Fleet renewal and engine improvements with lightweight materials like carbon fibre, and incorporating design changes to minimise drag, which reduce fuel burn, emissions, and costs.


Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)

SAF is a crucial piece of the puzzle to make sustainable air travel a reality. It’s the talk of the town as it can lead to lifecycle emission reductions of up to 80%. IATA estimates SAF could contribute around 65% of the reduction in emissions needed by aviation to reach net-zero in 2050 (IATA SAF Policy, 2022). 

SAFs are low-carbon fuels produced from a variety of sources, including waste oil and fats, green and municipal waste, and non-food crops. Stories of used cooking oil from our fried foods have spawned headlines, but as Shashank is quick to point out, biomass is only a transitory source.

A plane on green background with leaves trailing the aircraft.
Green flights – soon a reality? Credit: SimpliFlying.


There are many others with more promise, like generated heat from solar power. US firm, Synhelion, feeds high-temperature rays from the sun into a thermochemical reactor in a process that produces fuels fit for jets. Captured carbon dioxide from the atmosphere can be another source of SAF, which carbon transformation company Twelve is working on.

SAF holds promise, but is scarce and expensive, representing less than 1% of global fuel supply in 2023, and with severe logistical challenges. While supplies will double in 2024, demand is sky high, and airlines need to move fast to secure a pipeline.


Electric and Hydrogen Aircraft

The zero emission saviour of the aviation industry or a unicorn? We have electric cars already. How hard can it be? Turns out electric flight is devilishly complex, because of a battery issue. Unlike fuel load, which becomes lighter as the trip progresses, batteries remain the same weight, and with today’s technology, the mechanics only allow for shorter routes and smaller airplane models. With advancements, medium range may be attainable, but long-haul flights are not on the radar.

A ZeroAvia plane taking off from a runway.
Hydrogen planes from ZeroAvia. Credit ZeroAvia.


Therefore, hydrogen-powered aircraft, with a higher energy density than electric, may have the potential to become the choice for bigger planes and longer journeys. The only byproduct is water, yet technological hindrances remain for production, storage, and distribution. Shashank mentions Universal Hydrogen and ZeroAvia as companies committed to exploring the path for hydrogen planes.


Carbon offsetting

No article on sustainable aviation can disregard carbon offsetting. Airlines have offered passengers the possibility to offset emissions associated with their air travel, through an optional fee. The money goes to projects such as reforestation and renewable energy plants that reduce or eliminate CO2. However, critics levy scepticism about the true value and benefit of investing in such schemes.


Flight shame

The elephant in the plane. Plus, I’m from Sweden and am used to fielding questions about flygskam (the original Swedish word) more often than I check the flight board for my gate number. I don’t think shaming is the best way to affect change or to advance sustainable flying and tourism, but agree with Shashank that the public discussion has resulted in making sustainability a much more talked about subject. The same goes for carbon offsets, the debate has improved the project quality. And in the end, airlines need a multi-faceted approach to minimise emissions. Wishing for a singular miracle solution won’t work.

In their latest book, “Sustainability in the Air”, Shashank and Dirk Singer (Head of Sustainability at SimpliFlying) have captured the momentum of positive change and exciting new technologies to get the industry in line with scientific and societal expectations. The book features innovators from around the world transforming air travel for a greener future. There are the outsiders, tech founders and startups, who have never worked with aviation. And you have the old guard, airlines and manufacturers reinventing the sector from within.

Pile of books on sustainable flying.
Sustainability in the Air, available now. Credit: SimpliFlying.


With more people waiting to make their first flight, this is a challenge we must get right. And by we, I mean both the industry and consumers. So how far have we come, and to what extent do travellers care?


Boarding Call for Sustainable Flying

Shashank remembers his maiden air voyage with incredible detail, almost as if he’s still on it. He takes us to 1994, flying from New Delhi to Singapore on an Aeroflot Ilyushin aircraft. Since they allowed smoking back then, he disembarked smelling like an ashtray, but the excitement cancelled out any personal discomfort.

Man inside the cockpit of a plane.
Shashank Nigam – at the helm of sustainable aviation. Credit: SimpliFlying.


Air travel has gone through dramatic changes in the last few decades, with the awareness of its environmental impact, a significant shift. Airlines have to address the issue from operational, technological, and societal perspectives, communicating their sustainability efforts in a transparent fashion. Loyalty programs with green miles, carbon offset options, and now voluntary fees. Do they work? Do people care?

Shashank is optimistic, describing Lufthansa’s recent Green Fares experiment where customers could choose to pay an extra sustainable aviation fuel surcharge. In the first year, the conversion rate stood at 3%, but 12 months on it has risen to 10% on domestic German flights. As SAF and new airplanes with advanced technology will command a premium and lead to higher fares, trust in the brand is essential for travellers to go along with measures that raise prices.

“An airline that can tell a story in such a simple manner that it empowers everyone else to share the story has the foundations for lasting loyalty.” – Shashank Nigam

Who is making positive waves? Shashank is quick to point out how Virgin Atlantic’s recent 100% SAF flight impressed him. Virgin founder Richard Branson is a household name, which meant the message resonated with politicians, media, investors, and travellers. The topic needs to go mainstream, and here it did. Even members of Shashank’s family brought it up themselves, providing dinner conversation he didn’t expect.

He sees impressive changes from the larger airlines, important because they can galvanise change in the whole industry. The budget sector isn’t resting either, with actors like easyJet and Wizz Air focussing on low per-person emissions.

Electric plane in the sky.
Electric planes – soon in a sky near you. Credit: Heart Aerospace.


With the expected growth of sustainable aviation fuels, the electric revolution, and consumer interest, Shashank remains hopeful that the industry will rise to the challenge, allowing us to journey to where our hearts sing. And he has an example that makes me proud of the Nordics.

Scandinavian Airlines, SAS, sold out tickets within minutes for its first electric flight, scheduled between Copenhagen and Stockholm for 2028, in an aircraft manufactured by Swedish company Heart Aerospace.

Will you be on it?


How often do you travel by plane when on holiday? Have you paid extra for carbon offsets or sustainable aviation fuels? Let us know in the comment section! Subscribe to our newsletter and benefit from travel guides, sustainable tourism and luxury travel tips, insightful interviews, and inspirational places to visit. One Planet Journey – The World’s First Deep Travel Magazine.


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