News Deeply*, in partnership with* Sustainable Brands*, has produced a series of profiles looking at how brands are tackling some of the world’s biggest challenges. The goal is to examine trends and gather insights from a new wave of corporate citizenship – in an era when the private sector is increasingly expected to play a positive role in improving our lives and societies. This is the 4th article in* the series.
With 925 flights in the skies each day, JetBlue’s fuel choices present a significant opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As head of sustainability at the airline, Sophia Mendelsohn champions its vision to reduce environmental impact – and the operational strategies required to make that happen.
Prior to JetBlue, Mendelsohn worked in China for the Jane Goodall Institute, where she created partnerships between companies and schools to reduce their buildings’ environmental impact. Through JetBlue’s commitment to clean energy, she now creates similarly productive relationships with fuel producers in order to promote the development of alternative fuel sources.
We caught a few minutes with her at SB’16 San Diego in June to learn more.
Tell me about drop-in biofuels - the renewable hydrocarbon biofuels being developed as alternatives to traditional jet fuel. What does a shift towards them mean for airlines and consumers?
Sophia Mendelsohn: ‘Drop-in’ is kind of shorthand to say that you do not need to alter how you fuel or how you fly. It should go without saying but it never does: None of these fuels are a safety issue.
Biofuels are all approved by the FAA through a review that ensures the molecular structure of an alternative fuel is identical to that of a traditional fossil fuel. They are blended, so by the time they reach an aircraft engine, they are identical.
From a consumer’s perspective – and the company’s – alternative biofuels create no difference in operations or the aviation experience. The change is more akin to upgrading the model of your phone rather than switching to an electric car. Above all, safety is always number one – with zero compromise.
JetBlue is the first U.S. airline member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials. Why are you taking a leading role in advocating for sustainable energy innovation?
SM: Sustainable jet fuels are not going to be something that comes to aviation as long as the industry remains passive – it won’t be free with no action. We need to proactively support the market for sustainable jet fuels. The fossil fuel market has been around for almost a hundred years; the sustainable jet fuels market has been around for five.
At the same time, as a business, we need to hold both fuels to the same standard: quality, safety and price. It's going to take partnership with the fuel makers to nurture it into existence.
How can companies play an effective role in increasing the development of clean energy?
SM: As engines of economic growth, it is companies that must say to fuel producers, “We want you to make something different.” We don't care if they don't have it this quarter. We're looking one year, two years, ten years out because we fully intend to be in business in a hundred years – and we intend to be much bigger so we are planning for that now.
When companies give the market the signal that they are looking into the long run, it helps stimulate research and development into green technologies. Ultimately, these new types of fuel technologies will become standard, just like the LED light bulb has.
Clean fuels can cost more. How is environmental sustainability a productive alignment of business and purpose for JetBlue?
SM: We are planning for cost-effective, efficient and safe energy sources and one of the major reasons we are doing this is that it will directly help JetBlue’s bottom line. It’s the most basic business mentality: Invest now, and you will reap the rewards later. We're not paying “extra” because we think it's the right thing to do; we’re paying the right amount because it's the right thing to do – for our business as well as for the environment.
How has sustainable energy for aviation been evolving, and what is JetBlue’s approach?
SM: Credit is due to United and Southwest, which have signed green fuel deals, and to FedEx, which has been aggressive in supporting sustainable jet fuels. At JetBlue, we are taking a long-term approach. We're not necessarily betting on any particular technology or feedstock; we already know the landscape is going to be very different by the time the fuels arrive. These are long-term contracts that may be another ten, fifteen, twenty years out.
Each type has consequences, so that’s why we’ve joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials to consider this holistically – the effect on land use, greenhouse gas reduction, jobs. With all those things in mind, we ask ourselves, what is the best fuel JetBlue can set up to purchase in 10 years for use over the next 20 years?
I sometimes joke with my colleagues that none of these fuels are made of unicorn tears. There is no magic ingredient or silver bullet. What that means for us is finding a partner that is somewhat feedback agnostic, somewhat technology agnostic - and staying with that partner, promising to support them if they build a refinery that will produce a more sustainable type of fuel.
What does the future hold for clean energy innovation in aviation?
SM: I continue to be shocked by how some stakeholders don't seem to believe that things will change within the supply chain.
Look around at what aviation has done in the past hundred years: We went from flying wooden airplanes that hold one person to double-deckers that go from Australia to London. How can you think that fuel technology won't evolve further?
We know that electricity generation is shifting. We know that automobile generation types are shifting. We know that green technology innovation is going to be a continuing restraint on and opportunity for business, so why aren't we all working hard to get ahead and set up for the future?
Airlines’ ability to reduce their greenhouse gas footprint – while also taking people everywhere they want to go – is going to be a critical part of our license to grow. This is what consumers want, and it’s what sets aviation apart from other industries that have been more reluctant to embrace change. Our fuel choices and the environmental consequences aren’t just a rote element of doing business - they are becoming the way we can connect with consumers as we do better, and do better things with them.