Airlines chart a long, uncertain – but feasible – path to sustainable air travel

In addressing the carbon impact of a corporate travel programme, air travel is the proverbial low-hanging fruit, but picking and preparing it is no easy task.

Compared with other areas of a corporate travel programme, 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 for business purposes. “Airlines are the easiest to measure, the easiest to scrutinise and the hardest to decarbonise,” said Delta Air Lines managing director of sustainability Amelia DeLuca.

In the larger global climate debate, airlines have emerged as a key target. Airlines account for roughly two per cent 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.

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 has also 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 has also voluntarily decided to cap its emissions at 2012 levels, DeLuca said. United Airlines late last year pledged a 100 per cent 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 sceptical 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.”

“Offsetting is going to be necessary in the mid-term 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”

Michael Gill, executive director

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 to 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 programme 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 organisation was still increasing its base emissions even as they offset them all. As the number of quality carbon offset programmes 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 one million tons of carbon dioxide – an amount that would take 40 million trees to replicate – and permanently store it underground.

United chief executive Scott Kirby at the time said that 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 per cent green” rather than just “net zero” with carbon emissions by 2050.

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

Aircraft investment will be a critical component as well. Carriers investing in fleet renewal plans, retiring older aircraft in favour 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 programme. Each new generation of aircraft comes with a targeted fuel efficiency improvement of 10 per cent to 15 per cent, according to the airline.

If there is any silver lining to the pandemic for the airline industry, it enabled carriers to accelerate those fleet renewal programmes 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 six per cent, 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 are able 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’ vice president of zero-emission aircraft said in a recent CAPA Live virtual conference.

Using hydrogen fuel cell technology as a primary aircraft fuel is “clearly a challenge” to overcome, and while it has “huge versatility,” it is still 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 chief executive 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 per cent 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 per cent 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.

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, said Lange.

“It’s really cumbersome and complicated to collect waste and residue, and it is costly not only to collect, but also to treat
Thorsten Lange, Neste EVP

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.

Governmental support is another critical component of a zero-emission future for the airline industry. Some of that comes from supporting initiatives directly. US 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 aircraft 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 burn, Eurocontrol director Eamonn Brennan said at the CAPA event.

Here is where the corporate travel community can also play a role via advocacy, making the views of their own travellers clear to elected officials. Delta’s DeLuca said in her own personal discussions with business traveller friends that 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.”

With the potential to cut emissions by up to 80 per cent, 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 rundown of what the Big Three in the US 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 to the end of this year; began using SAF out of Los Angeles in 2016.