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While Travel Was Quiet, JetBlue Was Busy with Sustainability

During COVID, JetBlue announced several sustainability targets — including a net-zero target by 2040, as well as a set of short-and medium-term targets to help them get there. We asked Carl Otto, JetBlue’s Senior Analyst for Sustainability and ESG, how they'll do it.

It’s not news to anyone that COVID has made the last two years tough for the aviation industry. As activity has started to resume and travel is slowly bouncing back, new momentum around sustainability is emerging. While the Biden administration recently set a goal of transitioning to sustainable jet fuel alternatives by 2050, COVID gave airlines downtime to adopt and prioritize new sustainable approaches.

While the focus of reducing emissions has been on transitioning the energy sector to renewable sources, aviation within and departing from the US contributes 11 percent of the country’s carbon emissions. Globally, that figure is roughly 2 percent; and that’s likely to triple over the next 30 years, if real mitigation efforts aren’t put into place. Thus, the aviation industry plays a critical part in achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement and ensuring the goal set earlier this year by the Biden Administration is achieved.

Globally, a program already exists to help push the industry to mitigate increases in emissions resulting from growth. The Carbon Offset and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) is voluntary until 2027; however, 80 countries have already joined and are following the phased implementation schedule that begins this year. While CORSIA is a start, airlines are finding ways to work towards net zero on their own.

Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) alone won’t be enough to reduce emissions to the levels needed. While we wait to see what further measures are taken as a result of government enforcement, leadership from airlines such as JetBlue has moved in to fill the gap. It may surprise some to know that airlines have been working on sustainability in every aspect of their operations — from flying techniques to in-flight operations to plane design.

During COVID, JetBlue, having led the industry for some time when it comes to sustainability, announced several ESG targets — including net zero by 2040, as well as a set of short-and medium-term targets to help them get there. We had a chance to ask Carl Otto, JetBlue’s Senior Analyst of Sustainability and ESG, how they’ll do it.

How is JetBlue faring as we start to come out of the pandemic?

Carl Otto: The pandemic was exceptionally tough for the entire industry; but I’m thankful that everyone at JetBlue, from leadership to the front line, really came together to focus on running a safe and secure operation for our customers and crewmembers, and making the necessary moves to ensure our financial security. We aren’t back to pre-pandemic levels yet but are adapting to this new normal, and have achieved some major milestones despite all the curveballs thrown our way — including the addition of nine new cities this year alone, the introduction of new fuel-efficient plane types, growing our product and services both in the air and with our JetBlue Travel Products, and even disrupting the transatlantic market with our launch of service to London.

While the pandemic resulted in a massive drop in flying, the focus it prompted on maintaining our financial security also gave us an opportunity to examine all aspects of the business for improving efficiencies. From a sustainability standpoint, we were able to analyze our operation like never before and identify opportunities to ramp our flying back up better and smarter. Less congested air space gave our flight and dispatch teams an opportunity to prioritize fuel-efficient routes and offer us valuable insights we otherwise may not have been able to study.

We’ve long known JetBlue to be a leader in sustainability, but the fact that you’ve kept your promises during the 2020 downturn is commendable — how did you do it?

CO: It’s really a testament to our leaders and their commitment to sustainability. They understand that sustainability is crucial to our rebuilding as an airline and industry as we emerge from this pandemic. Ultimately for us, our experiences in 2020 only reinforced the importance of mitigating risks that threaten the health of our business and our planet. Although at times challenging we have only sharpened our focus on all things ESG. It would have been easy to postpone our domestic offsetting which we achieved in July 2020, or the two sustainable aviation fuel contracts we executed in SFO and LAX, given everything going on. But I don’t think postponing was ever really an option for us, we knew how important it was to stay firm in our commitment to sustainability.

What are your plans going into 2022? Will we see a more aggressive carbon target? Have things had to be scaled back?

CO: You can expect a lot from us in 2022! Sustainability remains a major focus for the airline coming out of COVID; and we see this re-emergence as an opportunity to further transition our operations to be more sustainable to help us reach our target of net zero by 2040.

To help guide us on the path to net zero, we’ve committed to several short- and medium-term ESG targets:

  • Net-zero carbon emissions by 2040, including carbon offsets
  • Reduction in aircraft emissions 25 percent per available seat mile (ASM) by 2030 from 2015 levels, excluding offsets
  • 10 percent of total jet fuel to be from blended SAF by 2030
  • 40 percent of three main ground service equipment vehicle types to electric by 2025 and 50 percent by 2030
  • Eliminate single-use plastics within service where possible. Where not possible, ensure plastic is recyclable
  • Maintain at least an 80 percent recycling rate for audited domestic flights

What are the major components of your current strategy beyond offsets? Are we going to see more widespread sustainable aviation fuel being used?

CO: Our strategy is always to avoid emissions where we can, and to offset what we can’t. SAF is a major tool we can use to avoid emissions in the first place, and we’ll continue to use that tool as much as we can. This market has been developing for more than a decade and we’ve been actively working to prop it up for years now. We’re thrilled to see it now gaining the momentum it needs.

Today, we work with two SAF partners — Neste and World Energy — in SFO and LAX, respectively. We’ve helped bring SAF to SFO since August 2020 and started doing the same in LAX in July 2021. Most recently, we also announced that soon we will be bringing SAF to the Northeast with S.G. Preston, too. We will be converting 30 percent of our fuel buy across JFK, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty International Airport from traditional Jet-A fuel to SAF. This is the largest buy to date of a commercial airline at the airports in this region.

We know that reducing your emissions is the key goal in a net-zero strategy; but as an airline, unavoidable emissions are inevitable. How did you choose the offset projects you decided to work with?

CO: We’ve been working with our long-time offsetting partners, CarbonFund, and two new partners — South Pole and EcoAct — to help us ensure that we are investing in high-quality carbon credits that adhere to a strict set of standards. Our partners help us identify a portfolio of diverse projects all over the world that are registered with a third-party, internationally recognized verification standard or standards verified by the UNFCCC. We recognize that offsetting our emissions is not a long-term solution — but, like you said, unavoidable emissions are inevitable; and given what we have at our disposal today, offsets are an important short-term bridge to reducing our environmental impact.

Have passengers been receptive to your measures? Is it driving business?

CO: Customers do continue to be receptive to JetBlue’s sustainability work. JetBlue was founded on the principle of delivering a unique travel experience; and the reason we’ve been so successful is because we listen to what the customer wants when crafting that experience. Our customer demand for recycling cans and bottles onboard is actually how JetBlue’s Sustainability program was pioneered. That perspective and those conversations absolutely help steer our work today.

In a nutshell, how is JetBlue helping the travel industry #BuildBackBetter?

CO: In one word: partnership. Sustainability isn’t something that airlines should compete over. While we’re excited about our progress and targets as a company, we’re prioritizing sustainability and ESG this year with a renewed focus on industry partnership and support. This field is still young but growing very quickly; and we want to help learn and progress the industry together. No one will solve this problem on their own.