When people think of industries making the world a more sustainable place, air travel is likely at the bottom of the list — but United Airlines is one industry leader working hard to change that.
We recently spoke with United’s Director of Environmental Strategy and Sustainability, Natalie Mindrum, to learn more about how the airline continues to fuel its progress on sustainability.
United has been an industry leader in scaling sustainable biofuel development/use for aviation. In March 2016, you announced that United became the first U.S. airline to begin use of commercial-scale volumes of sustainable aviation biofuel for regularly scheduled flights when United flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco began being fueled by 30 percent biofuel, reducing an estimated 60 percent of GHG emissions compared with regular fuel. What’s next on this front (has the biofuels initiative expanded since then/will its)?
Actually, all United flights departing from Los Angeles have been partially powered by sustainable biofuel since March 2016. That’s roughly 40,000 flights in 2016 alone, and we still remain the only U.S. airline operating flights with commercial-scale volumes of biofuel. United’s commitments to procuring and using aviation biofuel make up over 60 percent of the public commitments in the airline industry as a whole. Our $30 million equity investment in Fulcrum Bioenergy is the largest in the history of the aviation industry and represents our commitment to lowering our carbon footprint. We’re continuing to work closely with AltAir Fuels on our LAX operation, as well as with Fulcrum to develop their next biofuel refinery in the US.
In January, United was named ‘Eco-Airline of the Year’ by Air Transport World magazine for the second time. Aside from biofuels, which initiatives have helped reduce your environmental impacts the most so far? What aspects of your Eco-Skies program have proven the most challenging, and how are they being addressed?
With nearly 99 percent of our carbon footprint attributed to fuels, it’s hard to focus on much else – but we do. Air Transport World recognized our industry-leading efforts and launch of commercial scale biofuels at LAX. We were also recognized for another industry-first, which was our partnership to recycle our onboard amenity kits with Clean the World. We piloted a program with Clean the World in late 2015, and launched at all of our U.S. hubs in early 2016. In our first year, we diverted 50,000 pounds of amenity kits to Clean the World for recycling into new hygiene kits that are donated to organizations that help children, women and veterans get back on their feet after illness, injury or abuse. The hotel industry has been working with Clean the World for a number of years, but we were their first airline partner.
Working with the FAA, we developed the Performance-Based Contingency Fuel program which used big data to plan the correct amount of fuel that will be needed to cover unexpected situations, and became the first US airline to use it for international flights. This change helped us reduce emissions by over 30,000 metrics tons to date, equivalent to removing approximately 6,000 cars from the road.
We are also working hard to replace our ground equipment with electric equivalents. Today, nearly 40 percent of the equipment you see on the ground at the airport has been electrified. And we've added winglets to our aircraft, which improve fuel efficiency by up to 6 percent by reducing drag and increasing lift. Today over 96 percent of eligible United aircraft have winglets.
United will be featured in the ‘Good Travel’ pavilion in the Activation Hub in Detroit next week – what types of discussions/activities will be taking place/what can attendees expect throughout the week?
We’re very excited to host our first pavilion at Sustainable Brands! Our team will share our new United Polaris premium cabin experience and highlight the sustainability initiatives United has most recently launched. This includes a coffee break with illy®, our new coffee supplier. We will be serving illy coffee and they will join our team to discuss their own environmental action. The next day, we’re welcoming some of our favorite, furry, four-legged friends from our United Paws program. SB attendees will have a chance to take a break and de-stress with professionally trained comfort dogs that we have brought to our airports across the country – particularly during stressful holiday travel times.
Visitors can also stop by anytime and experience United Polaris, our reinvention of our international premium cabin travel experience, via a virtual reality experience. It’s going to be a lot of fun!
We’ve discussed United’s efforts to mitigate its environmental impacts, now let’s look at the social … In light of recent controversy surrounding United, what advice would you give to values-driven companies that find themselves dealing with unexpected 'social impacts' that can shake customer confidence in their brand?
I can’t speak for what other companies should do, but I can say that at United we are committing to meaningful actions that put our customers at the center of everything we do. This will drive us to be the best airline for our employees, customers, and everyone we serve.