• Wed. Oct 5th, 2022

The airline industry reduces climate impacts through long-term sustainability initiatives

Alaska and Delta share progress on interim metrics, aspirational goals ahead of industry net-zero goals.

When Seattle-based Alaska Airlines announced a major partnership in November with canned waterto help eliminate the majority of single-use plastic from its catering department, it highlighted many ongoing sustainability conflicts in the airline industry.

The airline industry is responsible for 3% of global carbon emissions, the vast majority of which comes from fuel. Removing 1.8 million pounds of single-use plastic from flights in Alaska over the next 12 months is a big step forward, but more of a drop in the bucket than an immediate dent in overall climate goals.

However, this type of action sets the tone for the rest of the industry; and while Alaska couldn’t share early metrics of the effort, it’s creating ripples in the industry.

“Alaska is offering to help other airlines eliminate plastic (from their operations),” the CEO of Boxed Water said. Daryn Kuipers Recount Sustainable Brands™. “We are now in aviation warehouses, which are among the most difficult to access.”

The announcement came ahead of other actions by other airlines, including
Delta – which is rolling out biodegradable bamboo cutlery and bedding made from recycled textiles (among other measures) to reduce plastic use by more than four million pounds a year.

“We try to fly as smart as possible,” says Amelie DeLucaDelta’s vice president of sustainability.

The Atlanta-based carrier is part of similar, but different approaches to reducing the impact on its operations – with a much more international focus.

Sustainable aviation fuels are probably the most relevant way forward

To solve the problem of massive fuel emissions, the solution that seems most promising is that of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) – biofuels made from renewable biomass and waste on which many airlines are focusing their investments to adapt the offer to a viable use of the industry.

To accelerate this progress, Delta has joined the Aviation Climate Task Force (ACT) – a new non-profit organization focused on eliminating carbon dioxide emissions in aviation, primarily using SAF – in October. The consortium of 11 airlines is sharing resources and technologies to solve this problem in order to achieve net zero emissions faster.

“The ACT is a great example of groups pulling together resources to accomplish an arduous task,” says DeLuca.

She points out that companies that commit to supporting SAF for their own business travel needs are an important lever that triggers demand for this lower-impact fuel solution.

“We are often inspired by how the automotive industry has worked together to scale solutions; and the ACT could do it (in a similar way),” she says.

responsible for business development in Alaska, Pasha Saleh, thinks SAF is “a big hope” for the industry, but there’s no realistic line of sight yet. He says this will require industry and government cooperation like never before.

“There have to be the right incentives in place and it’s hard to see where even 10% (of total supply) comes from SAF,” he says.

He also notes that Alaska is at a particular disadvantage when it comes to SAF because the company’s centers are not geographically close to SAF pipelines in other parts of the country.

Alternative powertrains are at least a decade away

When Alaska announced a partnership with a developer of hydrogen-electric powertrains
ZeroAvia last fall there was a lot of fanfare around the potential – essentially revolutionizing the way the carrier operates its 32 regional jets (flying less than 500 miles per trip, mostly around the Pacific Northwest).

It’s part of the airline’s five-part journey to net zero carbon emissions by 2040; but Saleh says it will be “a long, long time” before any of these technologies evolve into a scalable and commercially viable concept.

“Hydrogen-electric could be something within 10 years,” he says.

Saleh notes that Alaska will donate a retired regional jet to ZeroAvia (which will work out of Paine Field north of Seattle as part of the partnership, and build that office through 2022) this year; and experimentation with actual work on the jet could begin as early as 2023.

“Our goal is not to produce a one-off science project, but what we can learn along the way to electrify the 32 (regional) aircraft in our fleet,” he adds.

At Delta, DeLuca has an even longer timeline in mind.

“I think electric hydrogen comes after 2035 significantly; but, you never know,” she says. “Our strategy aligns with International Air Transport Association in that we think the biggest single driver of net zero by 2050 will be distances for hydrogen-electric.

Governance will also play a role

While all of these steps are underway, the company’s internal structure for airline sustainability is evolving along with it. In December, Delta welcomed its first chief sustainability officer — not just as an outside perspective on accelerating some of the targeted goals, but as a way to “think bigger and bolder,” DeLuca said.

Last year, the company also created a “Carbon Council” — which, for lack of a better term, is its internal ESG committee — reporting to Delta’s senior management and board. DeLuca says the group is another way to keep the company on track as its goals evolve.

At Alaska, Saleh is also in charge of the new Alaska Star Ventures
arm, which aims to invest in businesses and projects that will help the airline achieve its net zero goals. For now, the branch is investing in a few other funds with “an eye on our own investments in the future”, according to Saleh.