We’ve all heard it before - the carbon footprint of the airline industry and its effect on the acceleration of global warming is high and is only going to get higher as demand for air travel continues to grow. In fact, worldwide consumption of jet fuel is projected to reach an all-time high of 97 billion gallons in 2019. Together with CO2 emissions, other emissions may include nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, water vapor, particulates and others that contribute to overall impact. The environmental impact caused by aviation activity is said to be in the range of 4 to 5 percent of “radiative forcing,” which measures the difference between isolation (sunlight) absorbed by the Earth and energy radiated back to space.
The numbers may seem dire, but the good news is that the aviation industry is constantly finding ways to reduce its negative impact through technological advancement. New blends of jet fuel are a major source of these advancements, as well as airplane design and engine mechanics.
This week, United Airlines carried out a flight combining the use of aviation biofuel, cabin waste reduction, carbon offsetting and operational efficiencies. The “Flight for the Planet,” a Boeing 737-900ER based out of LAX, was powered by a 30/70 blend of low-carbon, sustainable aviation fuel, which achieves more than a 60% reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions on a life cycle basis compared to traditional jet fuel. The fuel is developed by Boston-based World Energy. United recently renewed their contract with them, inking an agreement to purchase up to 10 million gallons. United claims that this makes them the only U.S. airline to use biofuel in its regular operations.
To round out the most eco-friendly commercial flight, United is also implementing operational and procedural changes to drive fuel conservation, including single-engine taxiing, air traffic control prioritization and continuous descent approaches into airports. Onboard, United is implementing recyclable or compostable serviceware, among other measures.
United is leading the pack among U.S. airlines, but all around the world, airlines are bolstering their sustainability efforts. Not only is it conducive to good publicity amidst the environmentally friendly movement, it also serves the best economic interests of airlines. According to IATA, an airline reduces its fuel costs by approximately 225 USD for each tonne of CO2 it is able to avoid. With fuel representing such a large portion of costs for airlines, they will by any means innovate to cut costs. From an environmental standpoint, the challenge for the future will be how to reconcile the growing volume of air travel despite these advancements.