September 29 2022, Kimpton Fitzroy London
Friday 30 September 2022, JW Marriott Grosvenor
21 November 2022, Hilton London Metropole
ABTN discusses sustainable aviation with Charles Duncan, United’s VP of sales – Transatlantic, Middle East and India.
United recently ran a biofuel test flight…
Yes. It was the first domestic US flight with biofuels. Continental [who United is in the process of merging with] was the first US airline to have a test like this, but with only engineers on board. The flight we did actually had paying passengers.
It was powered by of algae derived and traditional jet fuel. Interestingly, the algae fuel is actually more potent than the jet fuel it’s replacing. We’re buying 20 million gallons to help seed the development of it. It’s still far more expensive than jet fuel, so it’s not an economically viable replacement yet, but it’s physically possible. We’re hoping with more investment that the costs can come down. That’s exciting for us.
We’ve been part of a small industry group working with Boeing, Airbus, and the engineering companies. Whatever biofuel we have must be pour-in. We can’t have a fuel that requires modifications to the aircraft. It must just be that we can blend it, we can change it, and the latest test met those requirements.
What is your view on sustainable aviation? Do you see it as a big challenge for the aviation industry?
The statistic I’m most proud of, and that I don’t think gets enough airplay, is if you go back to 1994, so 17 years, we use 32 per cent fewer gallons to fly someone 100 miles. We’re 32 per cent more efficient than we were 17 years ago. Few can make that claim.
It comes through a whole host of things. It’s investing in new-generation airplanes, engines, and also winglets – they are two metres tall, increase lift, and allow us to use five per cent less fuel on a flight like Manchester to New York. Literally just washing the airplane makes it fly more efficiently. When we’re taxiing on the ground, we use one engine not two. There are a million other things we look at, and all that together cumulatively is 32 per cent, so far.
We’re also getting 787s next year. We have 50 of those on order and they use 20 per cent less fuel than the 767s they will replace. We continue to invest and focus on sustainability. It’s something I don’t think the green lobbyists realise, that it’s in our own financial interest to do it. It falls straight to the bottom line.
With your merger with Continental, you are the world’s largest airline. Do you think you need to be setting an example to the rest of the industry?
Yes, and our frustration, to bring it full circle, is with government taxation. When you look at APD and other such things, it is actually shooting us in the foot. It’s taking away capital that we could invest in more winglets and more fuel-saving technology. Instead we’re just filling government coffers, which is not being reinvested.
The air traffic control systems everywhere could be modernized and streamlined as well. We think there is a further 20% efficiency savings just in air traffic control. When you’re flying over the EU, the national borders exist. So you’re passed up and down, moved this way and that, handed off from country to country. If the EU could get governments to walk away from having their own national service, instead having a pan-European air traffic control system, that would be huge for us.
On the subject of Europe, what is opinion on the entry of aviation into the EU ETS?
It’s sort of the same thing as APD. One, we’re certainly aware of our environmental impact. To a degree whatever the cost of the permits are, it’s the same element as APD. It’s capital that we can’t invest in reducing our emissions. Beyond that, US carriers have been very vocal that an EU solution only isn’t helpful. It’s not like the EU air traffic control. If each region of the world has its own scheme, it becomes really hard to manage.
I start with the premise I had before, that I believe the green parties and others believe the airlines and other industries don’t understand or aren’t motivated to reduce their emissions, and I disagree with that whole-heartedly. I think that we’re already well incentivized.
And we are important to the global economy. In this interconnected age, you can’t do without airlines, so let’s figure out how to do it as efficiently as we can, rather than tax us and make the problem worse.
How does the green lobbying in the US compare with Europe?
I would say that in the US we sometimes scratch our heads at some of the environmental concerns. We just don’t have the same degree of people making noise. It’s there, but it’s just far smaller and more quiet in the US than it is in the UK and the rest of Europe.
Should airlines be working closer together to counter the arguments?
It’s hard for competitors to cooperate. Beating up on someone commercially in the market one day, it really is hard then to push the pause button and then hold hands and go speak to an MP, or whomever it may be. That is not an easy thing to do.
It’s interesting to me. I was in Oslo giving a talk, and cited this 32% figure I was talking about. To me it’s astounding, I’m really proud of that and we’ll continue investing in it. I gave a one-hour talk, and everybody came back to that one point. It really surprised me that that’s the one they latched on to. I think it is surprising, and confirms that we’re not getting the word out, we’re not being aggressive enough.
The aviation industry is very competitive…
Even beyond that, there have been a number of anti-trust cases, so we’re constantly reminded about what we can’t talk about with our competitors. The safest thing is to stay away. But, it’s hard as individual companies to really make a strong case about anything. It’s better as an industry.