• Problem: Global aviation accounts for roughly 2.5 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, and air travel is considered hard to abate from an emission reduction perspective.

  • Delta’s new sustainability strategy: By treating sustainability as a “business imperative,” Delta looks to embed sustainability in everything it does. 

  • My take? I love a good sustainability strategy refresh as much as the next guy. However, is the aviation industry doing everything it can to accelerate the transition?

The flight pattern ahead

If combating climate change from aviation was a flight route from New York City’s John F. Kennedy Airport to San Francisco International Airport, with JFK being business as usual and SFO being a net-zero future we all hope to achieve across the aviation industry, then I would say the industry has left the gate at JFK but is currently on the runway preparing to take off. The industry is aligned on what needs to be done to decarbonize, but the speed at which it’s moving is the limiting factor.

Last week, Delta Air Lines announced an updated roadmap to achieve net-zero emissions and more sustainable air travel by 2050. Portrayed as a “business imperative,” the plan lays out key interim targets across the business, such as minimizing single-use plastic onboard by 2025 and achieving 10 percent of SAF usage by 2030, 35 percent by 2035 and 95 percent by 2050 with the remaining 5 percent coming from operational fuel savings and efficiency improvements.

A choppy flight path to sustainability

In-flight plastic cups, taxiing, takeoff and landing, contrails and deicing spray are just some of the things an airline’s sustainability team needs to think about when working to decarbonize its business. Oh, and let’s not forget the largest component of all — jet fuel.

Globally, aviation accounts for 2.5 percent of global CO2 emissions. On the road to a net zero future, the industry is considered hard to abate due to the long lifespan of airplanes, the cost of decarbonizing and the lack of available tools to meaningfully reduce emissions.

Air travel is also a unique area to consider when exploring decarbonization and net zero as air travel is probably where individuals are least willing to scale back. Of course, there are ways of mitigating your impact on the planet from air travel — offsetting your carbon footprint or trip emissions, picking flights with lesser emissions thanks to Google Flights data, or in the case of business travel, having your company partake in the many sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) programs that exist.

Delta’s sustainability strategy raises some questions

As I read Delta’s updated strategy, three areas sparked my curiosity:

  1. What does “minimizing single-use plastic onboard” by 2025 even mean? 
  2. How does taxiing fit into achieving 1 percent fuel burn savings from operational savings by 2025 and 3 percent by 2035? 
  3. Why can’t we just go faster on SAF production? 

In speaking with Pam Fletcher, Delta’s chief sustainability officer, I can’t say I now feel more informed. However, within our conversation, slivers of information did arise. Let’s run through them one by one.

‘Minimizing single-use plastic onboard’ by 2025

Delta is implementing certain practices to reduce its single-use plastic and based on the updated strategy, the company eliminated single-use onboard plastics by nearly 5 million pounds annually as of 2022. For perspective, airline travel overall across the industry contributes to 5 million to 7 million tons of single-use plastic waste. While Delta’s 2021 sustainability report doesn’t indicate how much single-use plastic is consumed on flights to understand how impactful eliminating nearly 5 million pounds is, when compared to 5 to 7 million tons, the journey ahead is pretty long. One of the nearest targets is to “minimize single-use plastic onboard by 2025” and 65 percent of waste from onboard travel diverted from landfill by 2035.

“The reality is, I would like to have addressed that [single-use plastic onboard] like yesterday,” Fletcher said. “There are just some things that you would think exist out there today [to replace single-use plastic] and you would think it’s more sustainable, but we have not found the solution yet for some of the things that should exist.” 

It seems airlines are trying to walk a fine line from the customer experience perspective since often any small change by an airline is sarcastically labeled as a cost-saving and a profit-hungry plan. Although eliminating certain plastic-heavy products may be initially unpopular, it may be the airlines’ best course of action. One bold idea is to no longer offer drinks in single-use plastic cups and require bringing a reusable bottle or something similar. However, that brings with it its own operational complexities. 

“Here’s what I would tell you: We think there are a number of ways of tackling the problem, and we are testing,” Fletcher said. “We will hear from our customers and flight attendants, and we believe we’ll come out on the other side of this with an elevated experience.

Improving taxiing to reduce operations emissions

Airplane taxiing in the U.S. lasts about 16-27 minutes on average and consumes 5 percent of flight fuel. Several ideas exist, both technical and non-technical, for improving this operation. One technical idea is creating an under-the-road conveyor system to pull a plane once it has landed or is ready to take off instead of relying on its engine. A non-technical solution that could reduce taxiing emissions is simply having planes wait at the gate until it’s time to take off instead of lining up on the runway and burning fuel.

No matter the approach, airlines need to address taxiing emissions. However, when I asked Fletcher about some of these ideas, she noted that Delta is close to announcing some things around taxiing, just not yet. “Here in the not-too-distant future, you’re going to see us talking about some pretty exciting changes and opportunities to get at that fuel consumption,” Fletcher said.

What’s holding up greater SAF production? 

Fletcher perfectly labeled SAF as “almost like a miracle drug” in that it can be deployed in assets today and help reduce emissions. However, real hurdles exist in getting this miracle drug at scale. 

“Right now, the economics are difficult and I put that at the top of the list [for what’s holding back greater SAF production],” Fletcher said, pointing to the problem from both a producer’s perspective and a consumer’s perspective that Delta can’t deploy it at cost. 

However, if recent history is any indication (i.e., COVID-19), when a miracle drug exists, we’ve proven a model where private, public and societal collaboration is possible to some degree to get said miracle drug into the hands of those who need it. With COVID-19 the collaboration was around a vaccine; in this case, the miracle drug is SAF, and those who need it are airlines.

Estimates point to needing 330 million to 445 million tons of SAF for the global aviation industry to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. While we are moving in the right direction as 2021 saw a 200 percent increase in production, some estimates for 2022 were producing around 300 million liters, which when converted to tons is about 105,944 tons. And with the cost of SAF somewhere around two times more than the price of jet kerosene, the path ahead will take time to achieve meaningful adoption. 

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