Airlines Chart Path to Sustainable Air Travel

Published on 8 May 2021


Compared with other segments of a corporate travel program, it’s relatively easy for a company to measure the carbon impact of their air travel. A flight, unlike a hotel stay, has a fairly straightforward carbon footprint, and companies usually have a comparably clear window to the number and types of flights their employees are taking.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel Initiatives in Focus

With the potential to cut emissions by up to 80 percent, sustainable aviation fuel will be a key component of the airline industry’s path to zero emissions. While only capable of fueling a small fragment of air travel today, due to high costs and production limitations, airlines have been reporting large investments in recent years to increase production and use. Here’s a sampling of what the Big Three in the U.S. and Europe have been doing:

• Air France-KLM: Among the founders of SAF supplier SkyNRG, which has supplied fuel for all KLM flights from Los Angeles since 2016 as well as flights out of Amsterdam; in 2019, committed to buying 75,000 tons of SAF each year

• American Airlines: Began taking delivery of SAF at San Francisco International Airport last summer and has committed to delivery of 9 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel over the next three years

• Delta Air Lines: Recently announced SAF agreement with supplier Neste; in 2019, announced a long-term agreement to buy up to 10 million gallons of biofuel per year from Gevo

• International Airlines Group: Committed $400 million over the next 20 years in sustainable aviation fuel development; partnered with Velocys and Shell for first commercial plant in Europe that converts household waste into jet fuel, expected to be operational by 2024

• Lufthansa Group: Has announced partnerships with SAF producers in Germany and Switzerland as well as projects in Australia and Dubai involving the production of green hydrogen, a critical component of power-to-liquid kerosene fuel 

• United Airlines: Pledged $40 million toward development of sustainable fuels in 2019 as well as an agreement to purchase up to 10 million gallons of biofuel through the end of this year; began using SAF out of Los Angeles in 2016

“Airlines are the easiest to measure, the easiest to scrutinize and the hardest to decarbonize,” Delta Air Lines managing director of sustainability Amelia DeLuca said.

In the larger global climate debate, airlines have emerged as a key target. Airlines account for roughly 2 percent of global greenhouse emissions around the world, and without solid mitigation efforts, that percentage could triple over the next 30 years, according to the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization. As such, the term “flight shaming” has been popping up more in recent years, challenging people to examine their own carbon impact in the number of flights they take for personal and business travel.

Setting Feasible Goals

Keenly aware of the increasing scrutiny of their environmental impact, airlines are setting their own timetables to reduce their carbon footprints. In 2016, ICAO adopted the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, in which airlines agreed to maintain carbon-neutral growth in international flights—which account for a vast majority of airline carbon emissions overall—beyond 2020. The airline industry also has been working toward a goal of halving net emissions from 2005 levels by 2050.

Individual airlines are setting their own goalposts beyond CORSIA. Delta last year committed to carbon neutrality, pledging an investment of $1 billion over the next decade to mitigate emissions from its business, and it also has voluntarily decided to cap its emissions at 2012 levels, DeLuca said. United Airlines late last year pledged a 100 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. American Airlines, along with other airlines in the Oneworld alliance, have pledged to reach net zero carbon emission by 2050.

“We know it will be a challenge, and it starts with reducing emissions in our own business,” American Airlines managing director and head of environmental, social and corporate governance Jill Blickstein said. “We’ve had a significant focus on our operations.”

It’s easy to be skeptical of such lofty goals, especially those stretching almost 30 years into the future. The aviation industry coalition Air Transport Action Group last September released a report detailing the technological advancements—and government cooperation—that will be necessary to reach them. It will be daunting, but not impossible, the group’s executive director Michael Gill said.

“What it showed was recognition for the first time that, as a global industry, there is a feasible pathway toward net zero,” he said. “There are a number of different pathways, through a combination of operation measures, air traffic management improvements, new aircraft technology and sustainable fuel.”

Moving Beyond Carbon Offsets

Today, carbon offsets are a central component of airlines’ carbon neutrality plans. Last July, JetBlue began offsetting carbon emissions from jet fuel on all its domestic flights, and Delta’s plans for carbon neutrality includes addressing 13 million metric tons of emissions from March through December of last year via offsets. The carrier is focusing on “high-quality” offset projects centrally focused on protecting forests, DeLuca said.

“They are the only real solution in the marketplace right now, and there is real evidence they have a clear impact,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian said in the carrier’s most recent earnings call.

An airline or corporate program could technically report as carbon neutral through offsets alone if they are willing to make the expenditure, but more will be needed in the long term, particularly if an organization was still increasing its base emissions even as they offset them all. As the number of quality carbon offset programs is finite, they cannot continue to account for growing emission levels.

“Offsetting is going to be necessary in the midterm to straighten out the curve, but if you look at 2050, I can’t believe that offsetting is still going to be a central pillar of actions by then,” Gill said.

Carbon capture technology, which directly removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, is one pathway. United Airlines in December announced it would be making a multimillion-dollar investment in 1PointFive, a partnership that is building an industrial-sized plant that could sequester 1 million tons of carbon dioxide—an amount that would take 40 million trees to replicate—and permanently store it underground. United CEO Scott Kirby at the time said the investment showed a shift away from the “easy path” of carbon offsets and that it was part of United’s pledge to be “100 percent green” rather than just “net zero” with carbon emissions by 2050.

It will require investment and research for carbon capture to feasible for widespread use. “We know it can work, but it’s extremely expensive,” Gill said.

Greener Aircraft

Aircraft investment will be a critical component as well. Carriers investing in fleet renewal plans, retiring older aircraft in favor of newer, more fuel efficient aircraft, are reporting significant emissions reductions.

American, for example, has invested about $23 billion for 550 new aircraft since 2013 as a part of an extensive fleet renewal program. Each new generation of aircraft comes with a targeted fuel efficiency improvement of 10 percent to 15 percent, according to American.

If there is any silver lining to the pandemic for the airline industry, it enabled carriers to accelerate those fleet renewal programs and retire older aircraft types more quickly as they slashed capacity. Delta retired about 200 older aircraft, which improved fuel efficiency per seat mile by about 6 percent, DeLuca said.

Electric aircraft could handle a lot of regional routes in the not-too-distant future, American’s Blickstein said.

In February, United announced a partnership with air mobility company Archer Aviation to develop and eventually use electric-powered aircraft as “air taxis” for urban markets. With current technology, such aircraft to travel distances up to 60 miles, and United said they could be in use within five years.

Looking even further out, Airbus, in September revealed concepts for zero-emission commercial aircraft, relying on hydrogen rather than jet fuel as their primary power source, which it said could be ready for commercial service by 2035.

“What we are doing is preparing for a world where we can fly with no impact on the climate, and we are extremely excited about making our contribution,” Glenn Llewellyn, Airbus’ VP of zero-emission aircraft said in a recent CAPA Live virtual conference.

Sustainable Fuel Attracting Investment

Using hydrogen fuel cell technology as a primary aircraft fuel is “clearly a challenge” to overcome, and while it has “huge versatility,” it still is only part of the solution, Llewellyn said. One of Airbus’ concepts is capable of transcontinental travel, with an estimated range of about 2,000 nautical miles, but that still leaves out long-haul international travel, which accounts for the majority of global emissions.

That makes investment in sustainable aviation fuel a critical component of airlines’ climate goals, Air France CEO Anne Rigail said during the CAPA Live event.

“Long-haul will be the last limit to achieve, so that’s why sustainable fuel is not only a transition action plan,” she said. “When we look at the 2050 goal, we know that current aircraft can be used with 100 percent sustainable fuel, so we have to put investment and focus on sustainable fuel.”

In itself, sustainable aircraft fuel is not a new development. Neste, which produces a sustainable aviation fuel that reduces emissions by 80 percent compared with fossil fuels, started providing fuel to Lufthansa more than a decade ago to show that flying with sustainable fuel was possible, Neste EVP of renewable aviation Thorsten Lange said at the CAPA event.

Corporate customers will be able to accelerate the market development of [SAF] by sending a clear signal to airlines and producers with their activities.”Neste’s Thorsten Lange

The fuel, however, remains prohibitively expensive and scarce for widespread use at the moment. In the Netherlands, for example, Neste has a process to recycle cooking oil used by McDonald’s to cook fries into renewable diesel, but just the logistics of getting the oil from the eateries are complicated, he said.

“It’s really cumbersome and complicated to collect waste and residue, and it is costly not only to collect, but also to treat,” Lange said.

While airlines are making investments in the fuel, corporations aiming to reduce their own carbon footprints are playing an increasing role in this area as well. Deloitte this year announced agreements with both Delta and American to buy sustainable fuel to offset its travel to both carriers. Microsoft has reached agreements with both Alaska Airlines and KLM to buy sustainable fuel credits to offset its travel with those carriers. United in recent weeks announced an alliance of more than a dozen of its corporate customers to collectively help United buy about 3.4 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel this year.

Such agreements not only provide the direct benefit of sustainable fuel use but also help propel future investment and development, according to Lange. “Corporate customers will be able to accelerate the market development of what they’re doing by sending a clear signal to airlines and producers with their activities,” he said.

Building Public Support

Governmental support is another critical component of a zero-emission future for the airline industry. Some of that comes from supporting initiatives directly. U.S. President Joe Biden’s tax proposal, for example, could potentially include tax credits for using sustainable aviation fuels, boosting their use, American’s Blickstein said.

Governments also play a key role in operational efficiency, such as investing in air traffic control technology that reduces the time that airlines are stuck on runways or in holding patterns, burning unnecessary fuel. There are other operational opportunities, such as a “Fello’Fly” project by Airbus, supported by European air navigation entity Eurocontrol, in which airlines are sent out in groups to use one another’s wakes, which reduces fuel burning, Eurocontrol director Eamonn Brennan said at the CAPA event.

Here is where the corporate travel community also can play a role via advocacy, making the views of their own travelers clear to elected officials. Delta’s DeLuca said in her own personal discussions with business traveler friends, sustainability now comes up as the most frequent topic—even more than the trite topic of airline food.

“No one will want to have to choose not to travel because it’s not a sustainable activity,” she said. “We need action now, really focused on balancing near-term solutions with long-term technology, so the generation that comes won’t have to make that choice.”


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