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How the Airlines Plan to Achieve a Greener Flying Future

By Michelle Baran

Apr 27, 2021

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The future looks greener for the airline industry.

Photo by muratart/Shutterstock

The future looks greener for the airline industry.

It’s going to take more than just offsets to make the changes the climate needs.

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In March, the U.S. airline industry made a lofty pledge to Planet Earth. Airlines for America, the trade organization that represents the major U.S. airlines, announced that its members have committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

How will they do it? The plan puts a strong focus on increasing airlines’ access to and use of sustainable aviation fuel—jet fuel produced from sustainable sources such as plant oils, municipal waste, and agricultural residue that generates up to 80 percent fewer carbon emissions than conventional fossil fuel–based jet fuel. The commitment is coupled with the goal of making 2 billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel available to U.S. carriers by 2030.

“We know the climate change challenge our country and the world face has only continued to intensify,” stated Nicholas Calio, president and CEO of Airlines for America. Airlines are consequently embracing “the need to take even bolder, more significant steps to address this challenge.”

Previously, airlines had been much more focused on carbon offset programs, financial investments in projects and organizations that help reduce the impact of CO2 emissions. For instance, airlines contribute to projects that, among other things, protect trees (which if you remember from science class, absorb CO2), to help negate the impact of emissions. And while carbon offset programs remain an important weapon in the battle against climate change, over the past year the emphasis has shifted more toward emission reduction and elimination, rather than just offsetting, as airlines look for ways to meet increasingly urgent climate goals.

Beyond sustainable aviation fuels, in order to reach its carbon-neutral goal the airline industry also plans to invest in more fuel-efficient aircraft, further explore hybrid and electric aircraft technology, embrace more efficient flight routing, and further reduce emissions through innovations such as carbon capture (more on this below), according to the full Airlines for America report.

Airlines for America’s members include Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines. The carriers are calling on federal, state, and local governments to support policies that will ultimately allow for increased production and accessible pricing for the sustainable fuels they will need to make their ambitions a reality.

In addition to the joint commitment the airlines have signed onto, each one is also working individually toward enhanced sustainability and carbon neutral goals. Here are what some of the major carriers are planning for a cleaner, greener future.

United is investing in carbon capture to help it go neutral

In December, United Airlines launched its own pledge to be carbon neutral by 2050. In 2018, United committed to a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050 compared to 2005 levels—but now the airline has promised to achieve a 100 percent reduction in 30 years’ time.

United’s plan is to, among other things, make a multi-million-dollar investment in a carbon capture technology called direct air capture. According to United, this process can capture billions of metric tons of CO2 per year. The captured CO2 is then stored underground permanently. A single capture facility can capture and store up to 1 million tons of CO2, a process that would take the work of 40 million trees, United reported. The airline’s investment will help see the building of the country’s first carbon capture plant in Texas.

Given how new carbon capture technology is, however, the verdict is still out on how well it will actually work.

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But United has stated that carbon capture technology and sustainable aviation fuels are the path forward, “rather than indirect measures like carbon offsetting.”

JetBlue still sees the benefits of carbon offsets

While the emphasis has started to shift away from carbon offsets, they definitely shouldn’t be written off entirely.

Last year, JetBlue was able to go carbon neutral on all of its domestic flights predominantly through carbon offset programs, which it accomplished in partnership with the CarbonFund.org Foundation. CarbonFund invests in offset programs that include wind, solar, and hydro-energy projects, as well as forest conservation and reforestation initiatives. JetBlue has also linked up with South Pole, which invests in hundreds of global offset programs from forest protection to renewable energy efforts, as well as with EcoAct, which funds tree planting, cleaner cookstoves, and clean water projects among other carbon offset programs.

JetBlue stated that it “views carbon offsetting as a bridge to other industry-wide environmental improvements like fuel with lower emissions.” The carrier is also investing in sustainable aviation fuel and its flights from San Francisco International Airport are being powered by sustainable fuel.

Delta says carbon offsets for now, carbon capture (and other green tech) in the future

Delta Air Lines is also on the path toward carbon neutrality, something the airline says it plans to achieve by reducing emissions through fleet and operational efficiencies and carbon offset forest protection and expansion projects. Like United, Delta said that it, too, plans to invest in carbon capture technology in addition to sustainable aviation fuels.

On April 22, Delta offered an update on its climate plan and said there are other ways for carriers to become more efficient as well. For instance, the company has replaced more than 200 older aircraft with new planes that are 25 percent more fuel efficient. Delta also plans to replace 10 percent of its fossil fuel–based jet fuel with sustainable aviation fuel by 2030—that will require purchasing 70 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel per year.

The airline said it is keeping a close watch on other more nascent green technologies that could eventually help the airline further reduce emissions, from carbon capture to electric solutions.

“As Delta invests in future technologies, carbon offsets are a viable, proven, and immediate way to make an impact today,” stated Sue Kolloru, Delta’s vice president of strategic corporate initiatives.

Delta is setting aside more than $30 million to invest in offset programs the airline says will mitigate 13 million metric tons of emissions

American increases its commitment to sustainable aviation fuel

Reducing its reliance on traditional jet fuel is one of the main pillars of American Airlines’ climate change strategy. The carrier has committed to purchasing 9 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel, with 75 percent lower CO2 emissions than traditional jet fuel, over the next three years.

American is also retiring older, less fuel-efficient aircraft, something that the company was able to do even more rapidly due to the pandemic, according to an October 2020 statement from American chairman and CEO Doug Parker.

Southwest Airlines supports sustainable fuel development efforts, too

On Earth Day 2021, Southwest Airlines announced that it will continue to support the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), which works to develop cost-effective, low-carbon aviation fuels generated from waste.

The carrier said that sustainable aviation fuel will play a critical role in achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. According to Southwest, NREL estimates that U.S. “wet waste,” typically all the things we think of as compostable such as food and yard waste, could produce enough energy to provide for about 20 percent of U.S. jet fuel consumption.

How to embrace greener air travel as fliers take back to the skies

In 2019, just prior to the pandemic, a global movement known as flygskam (pronounced “fleeg–skaam”) or “flight shame” had been gaining momentum. Inspired by Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg, a growing wave of ecoconscious travelers were choosing to forgo flying for more environmentally friendly forms of transportation such as rail travel.

Enter COVID: In 2020, the number of international air travelers plummeted 60 percent, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization, the U.N.’s air transportation agency. Air travel is expected to experience a partial recovery in 2021, though it will likely still be well below 2019 levels. The kind of “flight shame” travelers have been experiencing this past year shifted to the public health consequences of traveling during the pandemic rather than the carbon footprint of a given flight.

While much recent focus has been placed on the pandemic and the concerns of getting or transmitting COVID-19, travelers have not forgotten about the planet. On the contrary, they’re thinking about it more than ever.

“This past year has led to travel’s great reset, and one of the positive outcomes has been an awakening in terms of our greater responsibility to each other and to the planet,” stated Jessica Hall Upchurch, vice-chair and sustainability strategist for Virtuoso, a global network of luxury travel specialists.

In a recent survey of 250 travelers, Virtuoso found that 82 percent want to travel more responsibly as we emerge from the pandemic.

The aviation industry accounts for about 2.5 percent of global carbon emissions. For those who are starting to get back to travel for the first time since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, and want to do so with greater awareness of their carbon footprint, there are some simple steps they can take.

First off, is a flight actually necessary? If it’s a shorter trip, driving (ideally in an electric vehicle) or taking a train is likely more ecofriendly. Sustainable Travel International offers a carbon footprint calculator that allows users to estimate the emissions of a given flight. Travelers can use that information to invest in carbon offset programs that help compensate for the emissions of their air journeys or to help decide whether the flight is actually worth the environmental toll.

Other green air travel tips include flying nonstop whenever possible, lessening your load by packing light, and being a good steward of the environment along the way by limiting waste, especially single-use plastics. 

Travelers should check in with their airline to see what kinds of strides it is making with its carbon reduction goals. Is it offsetting carbon emissions and, if so, what offset programs is it financing? Is it investing significantly in sustainable fuels and other carbon-cutting technology? Is the carrier already flying some aircraft using sustainable fuels? What kind of reduction in emissions do those flights represent? While we summarized many of the initiatives the major U.S. airlines have committed to thus far, the targets will continue to be updated as green technology changes and improves.

These are the questions concerned travelers should ask and the issues they should continue to monitor. Thankfully, the airlines are opting to monitor themselves now, too, perhaps more so than they ever have in the past.

This article originally appeared on April 26, 2019, and was updated on April 27, 2021, to reflect current information.

>> Next: 8 Easy Ways to Lessen Your Impact as a Traveler

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