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How Engaging Its Employees, Value Chain Is Carrying Sustainability Forward at Alaska Airlines

News Deeply, in partnership with Sustainable Brands, is producing 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 2nd article in the series.

Jacqueline Drumheller is sustainability manager at Alaska Airlines, where she describes herself as being “on a mission to make her company the aviation leader in environmental stewardship.” She co-founded Alaska Airlines’ corporate sustainability program in 2008 and has been with the company for 19 years.

We caught up with her at SB’16 San Diego in June to dig deeper into the airline’s sustainability efforts.

News Deeply: What is the scope of Alaska Airlines’ sustainability initiatives?

Jacqueline Drumheller: Our scope is partitioned off into the three main legs of the stool – around people, planet and profit. I’m most passionate about the planet part of it. For example, think about an airline’s environmental impacts. The biggest one is emissions from the use of fossil fuels. When I think about it, it’s horrifying. We use over 1 million gallons of jet fuel every day and we’re only the seventh-largest carrier in this country.

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Anything we can do to reduce fuel consumption makes business sense and environmental sense. We’ve been ranked Number 1 as the most fuel-efficient carrier in the country for five years in a row by the International Council of Clean Transportation (ICCT), so we’ve done a pretty good job at that. We’ve cut our carbon emissions about 35 percent for every revenue passenger mile over the past 10 years.

Another way to reduce emissions is through electrifying our ground support fleet – all our vehicles. I think about 35 percent of all of our motorized vehicles are electric right now. We’re also trying to source more sustainable fuel. On June 7 of this year, two Alaska Airlines flights out of Seattle became the first commercial flights to use a new biofuel — the first approved for airplanes since 2011.

Another initiative that I’m excited about is our in-flight recycling story, because that had a grassroots foundation. Our sister carrier is Horizon Air, a regional carrier. They’ve been recycling as a grassroots thing, starting in the late 1980s, where employees were driving the stuff to the recycling center from the airport. Eventually, a lot of our airports got on board, and they started offering recycling at the airport. About 2008, we started implementing it at Alaska, and now we’re capturing about 85 percent of all the recycled material.

When I say recycled material, I mean mixed plastic, glass, aluminum, paper, cardboard – it all goes in one bag. No matter where in the United States we fly into – through recycling systems in every single state, city, county and airport – we figured out a way to get the system the same. So we can recycle at every single domestic location (except New Orleans). We’ve cut our waste-to-landfill per passenger by half since 2010. We want to cut it by 70 percent by 2020.

It’s been a lot of struggles and challenges but we’ve managed to get to the point where it’s a service standard for our flight attendants. When you try and implement change, there’s a lot of naysayers out there, but now the naysayers have quieted down and we’ve won!

News Deeply: What was the hardest part of implementation?

News Deeply: How did you overcome them?

Drumheller: With our contract flight kitchen, it was nice that we use mostly the same one at all of our locations. But in the state of Alaska – in Anchorage, for example – they’re deplaning the waste at the catering kitchen there and they don’t have any recycling in the state of Alaska. There’s no local place to take that stuff. So we actually have to pay for a container there at the airport that gets barged down to be recycled. It comes at a cost. But they are the most engaged, because they also have to pay for the garbage, and at more than $100 a ton for garbage, they now want to recycle as much as they possibly can.

With the flight attendants, it was a matter of getting the people who were both the naysayers and the advocates for the program to come to the flight kitchens and help us. We do these things that are called “Recycling Assessments” or “Waste Sorts” or “Recycling Sorts,” where we take all the garbage bags and recycling bags off a whole bunch of flights, and we separate them and weigh them. We had different flight attendants come in – both the yeas and nays – they came and did that with us so they could see the impact of what they’re doing.

We gave them feedback on how they did, and offered prizes, and we even made a video with our CEO showing him doing it. It took years of constant communication, but I haven’t heard too much naysaying lately, so I have a feeling we’re there.

News Deeply: You made it part of your composting ambition to compost 250,000 lbs of Starbucks coffee grounds per year. Why did you choose that target and how’s it going?

Drumheller: Horizon has been composting since forever. It’s a much smaller aircraft, so they brew their coffee on the ground, at the airport. Then, they load the hot liquid coffee onto the plane. At airports like SeaTac and Portland, they have pretty robust environmental programs. We were able to work with those airports to compost all the coffee grounds. It was 16 trucks full of coffee grounds a year, or something like that.

But, again, at Alaska, we deal with different vendors and different cities - they don’t all have composting. But we still want to take the next step, which is the coffee grounds. I think the target maybe isn’t so much 250,000 lbs a year, it’s just that that’s how much dry coffee we use, so we want to try to get as much of it as possible. Out of 23 markets, I think half of them can accept composting at this point.

News Deeply: How would something like the acquisition of Virgin America impact how you address sustainability? Virgin America’s made clean energy one of its stated priorities and missions.

Drumheller: According to the ICCT, Virgin America uses about 20–25 percent more fuel for every passenger they fly than we do. So that has me concerned. If we do acquire them, I know they’re flying the Airbus A319s and 320, and hopefully we will switch them over to 737s instead. I don’t want to see our performance go downhill because we merged with a company that has less efficient planes.

Virgin does a little bit of in-flight recycling, but not much. But we’ve had pretty good success training vendors. SkyWest is a good example. They’re achieving about a 90 percent recycling capture rate on the flights that they fly for us. We’ve done a good job of training them, so I don’t see why we can’t train Virgin to start recycling. If we fly to all the same locations, it would be relatively simple. I look forward to making that happen.

News Deeply: Biofuels are huge! What do you anticipate?

Drumheller: It’s really hard. We want a consistent supply of biofuels to at least one airport by 2020. That gives us only three-and-a-half more years. Our largest hub is SeaTac Airport, and we’re working with the Port of Seattle trying to figure out a way to bring a consistent supply into SeaTac.

Our industry has a goal of carbon-neutral growth beginning in three years. Airplanes aren’t going to change that much in the next three years, so the only way we’re going to do that is through either sustainable aviation biofuel or some sort of market-based measure, like carbon offsets. We’d rather have a source of alternative fuel than carbon offsets. Everybody’s heading in that direction, but there’s a lot of challenges in bringing sustainable fuel to the airports.

News Deeply: You’ve undertaken a variety of sustainability measures, but generally, or across each of them, what impact do they have on the bottom line?

Drumheller: Anything that saves fuel saves a lot of money, on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars. Who wouldn’t want that? But surprisingly, there are some airlines out there that save money on the front end, by purchasing used aircraft instead of new ones; [the used ones] are 25 percent less efficient. They’re saving money in capital costs but they’re spending more money for fuel burn.

Recycling programs don’t really save us any money, but being a West Coast carrier, and having most of our employees from places like Seattle and San Francisco and Portland and L.A., I think there’s an expectation there. If you recycle at home, you should be able to do it on an airline. That’s not saving any money but I think it’s a service standard that’s good for our reputation and our brand and our customer expectations.

Our partnership with Looptworks is another example. They make luggage out of old seat covers, which is cheaper for us than sending them to the landfill. Implementing energy efficiency in our buildings is another example of low-hanging fruit. But nothing else has the impact of the fuel or the in-flight garbage.

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