Published 1 year ago.
About a 5 minute read.
Image: Ingrid Barrenrine/Alaska Airlines
Alaska, Delta share progress on meantime-measures, lofty goals ahead of industry net-zero targets.
When Seattle-based Alaska Airlines announced a major
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
The airline industry is responsible for as much as 3 percent of global carbon
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.
To tackle the massive fuel emissions issue, the solution that seems to have the
most promise is with sustainable aviation
(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
“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
“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
“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.
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
It’s part of the airline’s five-part
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
“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
will be distances for hydrogen-electric.”
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
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.
Published Mar 7, 2022 7am EST / 4am PST / 12pm GMT / 1pm CET
Geoff is a freelance journalist and copywriter focused on making the world a better place through compelling copy. He covers everything from apparel to travel while helping brands worldwide craft their messaging. In addition to Sustainable Brands, he's currently a contributor at Penta, AskMen.com, Field Mag and many others. You can check out more of his work at geoffnudelman.com.