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Flightpath to a Sustainable Recovery

The COVID-19 pandemic devastated the airline industry, sending passenger demand plummeting and plunging carriers into debt. But even as U.S. airlines coped with the impacts of the crisis and worked to help respond to it by transporting medical personnel, equipment and more recently vaccines across the country and around the world, they were determined to advance their aggressive environmental commitments and make the industry’s eventual recovery a sustainable one.

“Despite the negative impacts, the devastating impacts, of COVID-19 on airlines, we remain committed to supporting environmental progress and to achieving sustainability in our sector,” Airlines for America Senior Managing Director of Environmental Affairs Tim Pohle explained at this week’s virtual UC Davis Aviation Noise and Emissions Symposium. “How do we really do this? From our point of view, that means building on our strong record.”

And a strong record it is: Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, U.S. airlines were transporting a record 2.5 million passengers and 58,000 tons of cargo per day, driving over 5 percent of the nation’s GDP while contributing just 2 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions. Over the past several decades, U.S. carriers have dramatically improved fuel efficiency and reduced carbon dioxide emissions by investing billions in fuel-saving aircraft and engines, innovative technologies like winglets, which improve aerodynamics, and cutting-edge route-optimization software. In fact, they improved their fuel efficiency by 40 percent between 2000 and 2019 alone.

In the midst of the pandemic, U.S. carriers reaffirmed their commitment to an international agreement called the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), which calls for carbon-neutral growth in international civil aviation beginning this year, as well as to an ambitious goal of cutting net carbon emissions in half in 2050 relative to 2005 levels. They also welcomed the adoption of an international fuel efficiency and emissions standard for new commercial aircraft as well as the approval of a seventh type of sustainable aviation fuel. The further development and deployment of sustainable aviation fuel will be crucial to reaching the industry’s ambitious emissions goals, and U.S. airlines have already begun working with the new administration and Congress to develop policies that will help make that possible.

“The worst economic crisis in our industry’s history, and we’ve had a number of economic crises… has only strengthened our commitment to sustainability and the environment,” Pohle said.

Pohle also highlighted a “silver lining” to the pandemic’s devastating impact on the airline industry, which forced the grounding of nearly half of the U.S. passenger fleet: “It’s accelerated the retiring of less efficient aircraft, so as the industry recovers and replenishes its fleet, it’s going to do so with new, more efficient aircraft,” he said.

And those new, more efficient aircraft not only emit less carbon dioxide, they also emit less noise.

“As operations recover, with new aircraft introduced, noise profiles will be even quieter since today’s aircraft are about 50 percent quieter than 10 years ago and 75 percent quieter than first-generation jet aircraft,” Airlines for America Director of Environmental Affairs Veronica Bradley explained at the symposium.

U.S. airlines’ record of reducing airplane noise is just as strong as its record of reducing greenhouse gas emissions: Since 1975, U.S. carriers have reduced the number of people exposed to significant noise by 94 percent, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, including a 50 percent reduction just since 2000.

“While the passenger carriers face a long road to recovery, all U.S. airlines remain committed to reducing noise impacts on local communities,” Bradley said.

And as the airline industry, the country and the world go down that road to recovery, U.S. passenger and cargo carriers will work hard to make the recovery a sustainable one. U.S. airlines are committed to protecting the planet as they reconnect it, and they will continue to lead the fight against climate change by investing in those quieter, more fuel-efficient aircraft, operating them in increasingly efficient ways and developing and using sustainable aviation fuels.

To learn more about the U.S. airline industry’s commitment to the environment, please visit AirlinesFlyGreen.com.

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