aeroplane against sky and clouds

Making flights the exception – not the default – at universities

22 September 2023
Masters of Sustainability graduate Dayana Brooke discusses her project, which aims to help the University reduce staff air travel and the emissions that come with it.

What inspired your capstone project?

It was put together by the Sustainability team at the University of Sydney. I was drawn to it immediately because I have over 20 years of travel industry experience, particularly in travel management. 

I'd been advocating for sustainable travel practices for at least 10 years, and here was an opportunity to be proactive about one of those elements that no one really wants to talk about: the impact flying has in terms of its emissions. 

We need to look at reducing the number of flights we're taking to reduce emissions. A lot of organisations really don't want to talk about it. When I saw the capstone come up, I thought: This is exciting. It's very progressive. I want to be a part of this. 

The capstone is part of the Sustainability Strategy target 13. One of the two aims is reducing the number of kilometres flown for business by 20 percent by 2025.

From the get-go, I was super keen and inspired. It takes a lot of courage for an organisation to address this problem. We've got to address how much we're flying and why we are flying. How can we, using this modality of transport, do better? 

Tell us about your background in the industry.

I have over 20 years of travel industry experience, booking and managing travel for students, corporates, executives, academics, and high-end entertainment talent. 

I have a very broad range of experience dealing with different traveller types, and understanding what their needs are and understanding that customer experience.

People would come to me going, “Okay, I need to go to X, Y, and Z. How do I get there?” This project allowed me to see the beginning of that story in terms of: why is it that they need to go there? This research allowed me to understand that side of the story. 

I'm also a founder and an entrepreneur of my own start-up company with sustainable travel. I had been working for my own company for the last 12 years. 

With Covid-19, travel stopped, and it gave me an opportunity to reassess. I wanted formal qualifications and a better understanding of sustainability. I went to do a Masters of Sustainability with the intention of going back to the travel industry with that knowledge. 

What were the key findings of your project?

Flights are embedded in university processes

My capstone looked at business travel for professional staff and academics. The first thing I realised was that flights are extremely embedded into university business processes for academics and researchers. 

Flight is a modality for communication. It's collaboration and connection with peers, industry professionals, and industry partners.

It's the way in which the University’s academics communicate, collaborate, and connect with their peers, and for business partnerships and opportunities, research student engagement, everything – it's really embedded. 

Pre-Covid, it was the go-to: I've got to go to this conference, for example, and speak about my research, because that was the way in which I progress my career. Or: I need to attend this conference because I need to network with business partners. 

Willingness to reduce flights is growing

The other key finding was an active willingness to reduce flights amongst business staff, academics, and researchers primarily in Europe and the UK.

A very small cohort of scholars and researchers were starting to become aware of their environmental footprint and wanting to actively reduce it. That willingness to reduce flights is growing.

With Europe and the UK, they've got the advantage of ground transport infrastructure, which has really helped facilitate the less-flying movement amongst their university academics. 

Unfortunately, we don't have that infrastructure here, and we are geographically disadvantaged: we’ve got to get on a long-haul flight to get anywhere. 

There are a couple of universities in New Zealand that are advocating limited flying. I found that interesting because they're in the same region as us. They also have limited infrastructure but there is a willingness to address it. 

University of Sydney positioned to lead the way

The other finding was in relation to the 20 percent reduction target in the Strategy. There is no university in Australia that has a reduction target as ambitious and bold as the University of Sydney. 

A lot of universities in Australia haven't even addressed their use of flights. A lot of them are just looking at how to offset them. 

This is a quite an exciting opportunity for this University to really lead in this space for sustainable travel practices and advocacy.

The university that has set a similar target is the Oxford University in the UK. The Massey University in New Zealand, they have a 30 percent flat reduction target. 

How do you hope this project might change society?

In 2019, there were a fair number of flights and 90 percent of those flights were international. Covid-19 naturally saw flights reduced. 

What has happened from that is, people have adopted this new travel behaviour. They no longer will go straight for a flight but instead, look at how to do things virtually and digitally. 

My research identified eight traveller types in a university context. There is now this ninth traveller type, and that is the virtual traveller.

You can then look at how we can support this new traveller type, recognising that they've actively chosen not to fly. How can we encourage more people to become that traveller type and reduce those flights? 

Understanding those nuances when it comes to traveller types is something that I'm hoping to do further research on.

Different traveller types have different travel needs and by identifying and understanding their needs, you can understand the user journey and where in that journey you can help them to look at reducing flights.

We're not saying, “Hey, you can't fly.” We've recognised that flying is still needed for communication, collaboration, and connection. 

What we're trying to do with this research is to make flying not the go-to, automatically. Where I want this to get is that by the end of 2025 people have adopted this mindset that they're looking to not fly as the default – that if they have to fly, it becomes the exception.

Head image: Photo by Philip Myrtorp on Unsplash

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