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Airline Industry Chips Away at Climate Impacts with Long-Term Sustainability Initiatives

Alaska, Delta share progress on meantime-measures, lofty goals ahead of industry net-zero targets.

When Seattle-based Alaska Airlines announced a major partnership in November with Boxed Water, to help eliminate the majority of single-use plastic from its food & drink service, it brought many of the airline industry’s ongoing sustainability conflicts to the surface.

The airline industry is responsible for as much as 3 percent of global carbon emissions, and a vast majority of that comes from fuel. Removing 1.8 million pounds of single-use plastic from Alaska flights over the following 12 months is a great step, but more of a drop in the bucket rather than an immediate dent in overarching climate goals.

However, this kind of action is a tone-setter for the rest of the industry; and although Alaska couldn’t share early metrics for the effort, it is creating ripples across the industry.

“Alaska is actually pitching us to help other airlines to remove plastic (from their operations),” Boxed Water CEO Daryn Kuipers told Sustainable Brands™. “We are now in aviation warehouses, which are among the most difficult to get into.”

The announcement preceded further action from other airlines, including Delta — which is implementing biodegradable bamboo cutlery and bedding made from recycled textiles (among other steps) to reduce plastic use by more than four million pounds annually.

“We’re trying to fly as smartly as we’re able,” says Amelia DeLuca, Delta’s VP of Sustainability.

The Atlanta-based carrier is part of similar, yet different approaches to reducing impact across its operations — with a much more international focus.

Sustainable aviation fuels are likely the most pertinent path forward

To tackle the massive fuel emissions issue, the solution that seems to have the most promise is with sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) — biofuels made from renewable biomass and waste resources on which many airlines are focusing investment to scale supply for viable industry use.

In an effort to get that progress going faster, Delta joined the Aviation Climate Taskforce (ACT) — a new nonprofit organization focused on eliminating carbon dioxide emissions in aviation, chiefly using SAF — in October. The 11-airline consortium is sharing resources and technology to solve this problem as a means to get to net-zero emissions faster.

“The ACT is a great example of groups pulling resources together to work through a daunting task,” DeLuca says.

She points to corporations signing up to support SAF for their own business travel needs as an important lever triggering demand for this less-impactful fuel solution.

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

Alaska’s head of corporate development, Pasha Saleh, thinks that SAF is “a great hope” for the industry, but there’s no realistic line of sight for it right now. He says it will require industry and government cooperation like never before.

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

He also notes that Alaska has a particular disadvantage when it comes to SAF as the company’s hubs are not geographically positioned near where SAF pipelines are in other parts of the country.

Alternative powertrains are at least a decade away

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

It’s part of the airline’s five-part path to net-zero carbon emissions by 2040; but Saleh says it’s going to be a “long, long time” before any of this technology evolves into a scalable, commercially viable concept.

“Hydrogen-electric could be something within a 10-year timeframe,” 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 is building that office out through 2022) this year; and actual work experimentation 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) planes in our fleet,” he adds.

Over at Delta, DeLuca has an even longer timeframe in mind.

“I think hydrogen-electric comes after 2035 in a meaningful way; but, you never know,” she says. “Our strategy aligns with the International Air Transport Association in that we believe the largest 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 in motion, the internal corporate structure of airline sustainability is evolving alongside them. In December, Delta welcomed its second Chief Sustainability Officer (still the airline's only C-level sustainability appointee) — not only as an outside perspective on speeding up some of the targeted goals, but as a way to “think bigger and bolder,” DeLuca says.

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

At Alaska, Saleh is also in charge of the company’s new Alaska Star Ventures arm, which is aimed at investing in companies and projects that will help the airline meet its net-zero goals. For now, the arm is investing in a couple of other funds with “an eye towards investments of our own in the future,” according to Saleh.