Nature Air: The Little Airline that Could by Alex Eskandar Khajavi
Nature Air, in its 10 short years of existence, has already left a mark on the aviation industry, thanks to a strong, ingrained commitment to innovation and conservation. The company–the result of an alliance between Travel Air, a 10-year-old charter airline in Costa Rica, and Naturegate, an ecotourism consulting firm–emerged in 2001 from a strong spirit of adventure and responsibility to protect Costa Rica’s diverse habitats.
Nature Air became a vital facilitator for tourism growth in Costa Rica by opening routes to eco-destinations previously reached via half-day journeys in a 4×4 vehicle. As the country developed into an ecotourism Mecca, Nature Air dedicated its resources to researching the sustainable potential of an airline. In 2004, the company took action to offset 100 percent of its annual carbon emissions by funding the preservation of rainforest land and essential biological corridors in Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula through a government-certified program called FONAFIFO (Spanish acronym for National Forestry Financing Fund).
Tackling aviation through green-colored glasses lends Nature Air a unique image that distinguishes it from the competition and evokes an emotional response from consumers. The public embraced the airline’s sustainable, nature-oriented brand, which persuades like-minded consumers to fly responsibly and prefer Nature Air over competitors.
The airline has won numerous international awards including the 2009 National Geographic Geotourism Challenge, Condé Nast Traveler’s 2010 World Savers Award, the World Travel and Tourism Council’s 2009 Tourism for Tomorrow Award, and the Rainforest Alliance’s Sustainable Innovator Award in 2008.
Despite Nature Air’s size, the green airline concept went viral because the company followed the pillar of wisdom that is: you can’t spend years theorizing about change – you have to go out, take educated risks and make it happen. The company’s strategy seeks to address the following concerns on a micro level, while serving as an example that the same is possible on a macro level:
Cleaning the Skies
Problem: Airlines are responsible for 3.5 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere every year.
Solution: Purchasing legitimate carbon credits.
Environmental consulting firm Naturegate, treated Nature Air like any of its other sustainable tourism projects. They conducted studies through local universities, met with government officials and researched the overall green climate of the country. It was not a process of reinventing the wheel, but rather finding the right wheel to propel their vision– in this case the Costa Rican government’s newly created National Forestry Financing Fund (FONAFIFO). Since the airline uses the same amount of jet fuel in a year that a transatlantic New York to London route uses in a single week, the investment required to counteract their carbon emissions was manageable. To date, the airline has conserved about 750 acres of rainforest land, compensating for more than 35,000 tons of carbon emissions. The ratio is determined by a detailed greenhouse gas life cycle assessment of both ground and air operations.
All of Nature Air’s pilots are trained in eco-responsible flight procedures, including managing time on the runway and optimizing routes and flight plans–efforts that have increased fuel efficiency by seven percent. The airline’s ground equipment is also run on biodiesel, derived from used cooking oil collected from employees and local restaurants.
As a 6-aircraft airline, Nature Air’s founder Alex Khajavi saw the company as the perfect laboratory to prove the value of investing in carbon compensation on a small scale. Through operating modifications and investment back into the local environment, Nature Air has taken responsibility for the negative environmental impact, compensated for it, and turned it into a positive message.
Since they first took action, 87 other tourism companies followed suit by participating in the program. Around the world, more than 10 airlines have now made the move to become carbon neutral. Though this is just a first step, Nature Air addressed some of the biggest questions out there by taking risks and taking action, with a strong understanding of mission and vision backing their efforts.
Problem: As industrialized nations become more aware of their carbon footprint and feel the need to clean the air in the global North, they look to the global South, to the tropics, to protect the vast forests or ‘oxygen farms’, by enforcing conservation projects while ignoring the needs of the local economy and population.
Solution: The industrialized North must pay a fair price for the oxygen produced by forest conservation in the South.
Conserving large tracks of rainforest in regions like the Amazon and Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula is only possible if we can show local populations that by protecting forests on private land they will be fairly compensated. The belief that oxygen farms in less developed nations must be created to compensate for the world’s pollution with minimal or no compensation needs to be revisited. The relationship between industrialized nations spreading their green ideology to the unexploited lands of the South is history repeated. Systems with economic benefits to create farms instead of the tradition choices of cutting, must be put in place for the benefit of the planet, without a negative impact on local economy. We need to diminish borders and invest openly in conserving the few rainforests that remain on our planet. However, conservation cannot function without social and economic responsibility.
Nature Air has developed a strategy in which economic, social and environmental areas are interdependent, and an integrated approach must be taken to guarantee success and sustainability. According to a study by the University of Costa Rica, locals with a good grasp of English earn an average of 40 percent more across all fields of work–from taxi drivers to doctors.
Based on this, Nature Air created NatureKids, a non-profit foundation dedicated to working with low-income families to develop the tools they need for self-reliant futures. Nature Air’s role in bringing English-speaking clients to the far corners of Costa Rica, and its interest in promoting the growth and stability of the regions it flies to, made this program an ideal fit. Through English-language and environmental education, NatureKids works with Costa Rican communities to cultivate values of sustainability at a community level. With this education, the seed of sustainable tourism become planted in younger generations throughout the country.
Every Nation for Itself
Problem: Emerging nations have more land to protect than funding to support it, while industrialized nations let off more greenhouse gases than they have forests to compensate for them.
Solution: We must look beyond borders to solve the global problem of climate change.
International, regional and national efforts have been made to promote sustainable tourism, and the private sector is challenged to be part of this crusade. The Kyoto Protocol is seen as an important first step toward a truly global regime that will stabilize carbon emissions. The United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals established environmental sustainability as goal number seven, with emphasis on the conservation of biodiversity. In June 2007, former President Oscar Arias stated that Costa Rica should and shall be the first carbon neutral country in the world by 2021.
Despite the commitment of the global community to instigate change, in many cases, our ability to dream and be innovative is limited. Governments need to look at the world from a broader angle in what is now a global neighborhood. The future is in alternative energy. Governments and inter-development banks need to lend their support to the research of biofuel and alternative energies through loans, financial assistance and the issuing of patents, just as they do in the pharmaceutical industry. The environment is an issue that concerns every living being on the planet. It is a long-term investment with infinite rewards and it is bigger than a single airline, corporation or government.
Climate change is a global issue that can be traced back to each individual man and woman. Our effort to slow the deterioration of Earth’s ozone comes down to teaching each individual how he or she relates to and benefits from conservation, recycling, waste management and green transportation. Though poor communities are more sustainable than our own in numerous ways, their immediate needs must be met before you tell them to not kill an endangered species for food, chop down a 40-year-old tree for warmth or burn their trash to keep their household sanitary and their farms disease-free.
Conservation is a task for many hands and endless funding. Corporate social responsibility is accepting the challenge on an individual level and making it a part of each company’s missions and goals, and a part of each employee’s training and mission.
How Nature Air has taken action:
- Since Nature Air was first certified Carbon Neutral in 2004, the airline has compensated more than 35,000 tons of Carbon Emissions through donations to the government’s Forestry Financing Fund, which pays local landowners to conserve the natural ecosystem.
- The airline improved the efficiency of their planes by 7% by reorganizing routes and strategic flight plans.
- On the ground, the airline uses its own bio-fuel in more than 95% of ground vehicles and generators. The fuel is derived from used cooking oils collected from employees, local hotels and restaurants
- Nature Air’s NatureKids Foundation seeks to give local families the tools they need to benefit from their natural surroundings without the need to destroy it. Through English and environmental education, the students come away better equipped for the changing economy.
- Future plans: to promote green transportation in the urban center of San José with the construction of sidewalks and bike paths and cleaner running buses.
Alex Khajavi’s career has taken him from haggling on Wall Street to fundraising in East Africa. A background in international finance and development and affinity for adventure led him to create his 2nd company, Naturegate, an ecotourism consultancy that headed sustainable projects in the Seychelles, Egypt, Fiji, Peru, Brazil, Kenya and beyond. Over a decade ago, he stumbled upon the tiny Central American country of Costa Rica where he purchased a small air charter company and turned it into the world’s first Carbon Neutral airline, Nature Air. More information on Nature Air’s carbon neutrality initiatives can be found at www.natureair.com/carbonneutral/ In addition, you may contact Mr. Khajavi with your questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
 FONAFIFO: The National Forestry Financing Fund is a government institution developed in 1996 under the Ministry of the Environment. Their goal is to pay small and medium landowners to take part in reforestation and conservation of their land instead of clearing the land for farming or logging. This service not only leads to the mitigation of carbon emissions, but also protects water resources, biodiversity, essential biological corridors and the local natural beauty.
 NatureKids is a Costa Rican foundation dedicated to working with low-income families to promote individual success and social development. Through English-language and environmental education programs, NatureKids collaborates with families to bring viable and affordable education to communities throughout Costa Rica. The program allows Nature Air to cooperate with the local community in raising a generation that recognizes the indivisible relation between humanity and nature.