Sustainable soaring: How airlines are changing the climate game

Susta plane over a green field

What if we told you the skies aren’t blue – they’re green.

In October 2021, the global aviation industry made a bold pledge: achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

That's no small feat. In 2019 alone, the aviation industry accounted for 2.5% of global CO2 emissions. That number might not seem like a big deal, but that amounts to a staggering 915 million tonnes of carbon. Fast forward to 2022, and those emissions were already back at nearly 80% of pre-pandemic levels.

But it's not all gloom and doom. Airlines around the world have been putting in the work, investing in Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), rolling out new fleets of fuel-efficient aircrafts, and embracing carbon offset programmes. These efforts aim not just to cut emissions but to revolutionise the way we fly, reducing waste and optimising operations to build a more eco-friendly industry.

As businesses skyrocket and the corporate traveller yearns to soar, a balance must be found to meet the needs of global connectivity and economic growth while also preserving our planet for future generations. Here’s how airlines around the world are stepping up to the sustainability runway.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) development

The development of SAF represents a significant milestone in mitigating the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by air travel – but at over twice the cost of conventional jet fuel for lower production, it struggles at the commercial market. In the quest to make SAF more accessible and cost-effective, multiple airlines have put their money where their mouth is.

For example, United Airlines have teamed up with Tallgrass Energy and Green Plains to tackle this challenge head-on. This collaboration aims to develop and commercialise SAF technology that harnesses ethanol. If successful, United stand to benefit substantially, with the potential of acquiring up to 135 million gallons of ethanol-based SAF annually, amounting to a whopping 2.7 billion gallons over the deal's lifespan—an agreement marking the company's largest offtake commitment to date.

Further strengthening the commitment to sustainable fuel, British Airways ventured into uncharted territory by investing in the first-of-its-kind SAF plants in both the US and UK. This strategic investment aims to scale up the availability of a drop-in replacement for fossil fuels, underscoring their parent company, IAG’s, commitment of $865 million dollars in SAF purchasing and investments to date.

Carbon footprint awareness and offset opportunities

In February 2023, United Airlines took a groundbreaking step by becoming the first airline to display the estimated carbon footprint of each flight directly in their search results — a move that swiftly sparked a trend across the aviation industry. This innovative approach didn't stop there; it empowered travellers with options to make a tangible difference by donating to the UAV Sustainable Flight Fund, which allows passengers and partners to invest in the development of SAF. This fund directs financial support towards startups dedicated to decarbonising air travel, accelerating the research, production, and technological advancements associated with SAF.

Air Canada introduced CHOOOSE, a global climate technology company, into the fold as their new carbon offset programme provider. Seamlessly integrated into their Canadian and US booking sites, this move offers customers the chance to purchase verified carbon offsets directly.

Carbon capture

Air Canada has recently invested $6.75 million into the Canada-based climate solutions company, Carbon Engineering (CE). This investment is earmarked to bolster the advancement of CE's revolutionary Direct Air Capture (DAC) technology, which is designed to extract carbon dioxide directly from the air at a substantial, industrial scale. By supporting the development of DAC technology, Air Canada is actively contributing to innovative solutions aimed at kerbing greenhouse gas emissions in the aviation sector, marking a crucial step toward a more sustainable future for air travel.

Reduction of plastics and water waste

GHG isn’t the only pollutant the aviation industry needs to cut back on. In 2018, aviation generated 6.1 million tonnes of cabin waste – mostly in the form of single use plastics.

LATAM Airlines slashed the use of single-use plastics (SUP) on flights by 88% through the implementation of circular economy projects. The airline has replaced SUPs with organic alternatives such as paper cups, bamboo cutlery, and reusable pans and trays, aligning with its ambitious goal to achieve zero waste to landfills by 2027.

Meanwhile, Qantas made aviation history by operating the world's first zero-waste flight in 2019, where approximately 1000 single-use plastic items were substituted with sustainable alternatives or completely removed.

Qatar Airways has also joined the sustainability movement, pioneering the use of General Electric's innovative 360 Foam Wash technology to replace traditional water washing methods on GE engines. This initiative allows the recycling of wastewater for irrigation at Hamad International Airport and uses aircraft water for cleaning.

Additionally, Singapore Airlines is stepping up its game in reducing cabin waste by leveraging AI and machine learning technologies to predict customer consumption patterns and minimise food wastage onboard flights.

Innovations in fuel-efficient aircrafts

United, Air Canada, and Scandinavian Airlines are leading the charge, already committed to the acquisition of new fleets of the ES-30 electric-hybrid regional aircraft, currently in development by Heart Aerospace. This revolutionary plane promises a harmonious blend of electric and hybrid technology to significantly reduce fuel consumption and emissions.

Scandinavian Airlines, ahead in the game, has made groundbreaking strides by being the first airline to offer seat reservations for commercial hybrid-electric flights slated for 2028. Not stopping there, Scandinavian Airlines is making substantial investments in hydrogen-hybrid aircrafts designed for medium-to-long-haul flights and electric models tailored for short-haul distances.

Fuel optimisation

The quest for fuel optimisation within the aviation industry has spurred innovative strategies aimed at minimising greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and optimising fuel usage across various airlines.

British Airways has implemented a significant transition, swapping diesel for electric pushback trollies and opting for lighter trollies to reduce aircraft weight—a move geared towards slashing emissions during ground operations.

Meanwhile, Air India has revolutionised ground handling with the introduction of TaxiBot, a semi-robotic electric vehicle that efficiently tows planes around airports, eliminating the need for engine use during ground movement and substantially reducing GHG emissions and fuel consumption. The Descent Profile Optimiser (DPO), has also been adopted by Air India, allowing for the minimisation of engine thrust during the descent phase of flights, effectively optimising fuel consumption.

Scandinavian Airlines, in a concerted effort to cut emissions, focuses on using appropriately sized aircraft for each scenario, understanding that deploying larger aircraft generates unnecessary emissions despite potentially favourable theoretical outcomes per available seat kilometre. Their strategy of utilising aircraft of varying sizes ensures maximum flexibility according to demand, significantly reducing total emissions at any given time.

Environmentally-conscious travel isn’t an option, but a responsibility.

Sustainability in the airline industry isn't a destination; it's an ongoing journey of innovation and progress.

As the corporate world races to reduce its carbon footprint, it can be hard to keep up. FCM Consulting’s market insights, data analysis, and customised solutions can be embedded into your travel programme to maximise your sustainable travel strategy and drive positive change.From carbon offsets to sustainable policy changes, we know which changes can be made most effectively without negatively impacting your business overall.

Smarter, swifter, greener travel. Let’s talk.