A Better Flight Plan

Industry Insights

Fueling a Sustainable Future

As the U.S. airlines recover from the devastating COVID-19 crisis and help restore travel across the U.S. and around the world, we know our customers and our country want that recovery to be an environmentally responsible one – and so do we.

Prior to the pandemic, even as we transported a record 2.5 million passengers and 58,000 tons of cargo per day, U.S. airlines contributed just 2 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. And we are determined to reduce our carbon footprint even further.

“We are and have been singularly focused on fuel efficiency, which equates to carbon efficiency,” A4A Vice President for Environmental Affairs Nancy Young explained at the CAPA Centre for Aviation’s virtual Environmental Sustainability event.

That laser focus has resulted in a more than 135 percent improvement in fuel efficiency between 1978 and 2019, the year before the pandemic. That represents a savings of over five billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of taking more than 27 million cars off the road in each of those years. U.S. airlines achieved that remarkable record of emissions reductions by investing billions in fuel-saving aircraft and engines, innovative technologies like aerodynamic winglets and cutting-edge route-optimization software.

Airlines around the world, including U.S. carriers, have set aggressive carbon emissions reduction goals. Additionally, U.S. carriers have committed 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.

The simple fact is that with jet fuel being one of every airline’s biggest expenses, reducing fuel use and emissions is not only good for the environment, it is good business.

“We’re working from a foundation of a business driven by fuel efficiency and carbon efficiency and building on that,” Young explained.

How are we going to build on that foundation going forward?

Young highlighted an array of industry investments and the need for complementary government action to support technology advances, air traffic management optimization, carbon capture and sequestration, among others. She stressed that the most significant opportunity is with sustainable aviation fuel or SAF.

“That is the biggest thing, and it really is, near-term, medium-term and long-term,” Young said. “That is the biggest opportunity.”

Young discussed the diversity of feedstocks and conversion technologies capable of producing SAF, noting one type of SAF is made from municipal waste, another from wood waste from logging operations and another from gasses from steel production and other manufacturing. And regardless of how it is made, SAF results in up to 80 percent less CO2 emissions than conventional jet fuel.

To capitalize on those emissions savings, airlines need to use more SAF, but to do that, they need companies to produce more of it and at a price that airlines can afford as they recover from the devastating impact of the pandemic. SAF currently costs three to four times as much as conventional jet fuel and accounts for less than one percent of all commercial aviation fuel consumption.

“We really need commercial scale-up, and we need cost-competitiveness,” said Young. “And we need governments to step up.”

One key way in which the U.S. government could step up is to enact what is referred to as a “blender’s tax credit” for SAF. Just a $2 per gallon credit would help build the nascent market for SAF, providing a financial incentive for companies to integrate more SAF into the fuel supply and enabling them to offer it at a price that would allow airlines to use more of it.

“Sustainable aviation fuel is relatively new,” Young explained, highlighting the aviation industry’s work to make SAF a reality. “In 2006, 2007, 2008, it was a vision, and now we’ve got it, so it is time for governments to do more.”

Nancy’s counterparts from other parts of the world agreed.

“We cannot do it alone,” said Airlines for Europe Managing Director Thomas Reynaert. “We need governments to step-up efforts.”

Michael Gill, executive director of the Air Transport Action Group, added, “There’s essentially a tipping point where the commercial deployment of SAF, if not at cost parity, certainly at a cost which becomes competitive for the airlines, will kick in, and that’s when you would see the massive production moving forward.”

And moving forward with massive SAF production is a crucial waypoint on our flightpath to a sustainable recovery.

To learn more about the deployment of sustainable aviation fuel in the U.S., please read our primer on the topic, and to learn more about the U.S. airline industry’s commitment to the environment, please visit AirlinesFlyGreen.com.

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