Delta Air Lines and other carriers, acknowledging it will take decades to reach their goal of net-zero carbon emissions, are in the early stages of chipping away at the effort and researching potential paths to shift from the use of environmentally-damaging jet fuel.
Atlanta-based Delta, in an update on its sustainability plans Tuesday, said it has committed to buying 200 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel, which it calls the most promising way to accelerate progress toward net-zero goals.
Sustainable aviation fuel still emits carbon dioxide, but it produces a smaller carbon footprint. It is a biofuel made from matter like tree and plant debris, used cooking oil other materials and is typically blended with conventional jet fuel for use.
There isn’t nearly enough sustainable aviation fuel being produced today to fuel even a small fraction of airline flights, according to Delta.
Sustainable aviation fuel is also significantly more expensive than conventional jet fuel. Last year’s federal Inflation Reduction Act added a tax incentive for the production of sustainable aviation fuel.
The International Air Transport Association, a global airline industry group, in 2021 passed a resolution committing to achieve net-zero carbon emissions from their operations by 2050, in line with the UN’s Paris Agreement on climate change.
Delta says its goal is for 10% sustainable aviation fuel usage by the end of 2030, 35% by 2035 and more than 95% by 2050.
Aviation produces 2%-3% of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to government agencies. Until airlines find an environmentally friendly alternative to jet fuel, they are working on small ways to reduce their environmental impact on the edges of their operations and starting on research efforts.
So far, Delta has reduced plastic on its flights by nearly 5 million pounds annually and saved 10 million gallons of fuel last year, according to Delta’s chief sustainability officer Pam Fletcher.
Delta is reducing single-use plastics on board flights by shifting to bamboo cutlery, and by giving business-class passengers amenity kits in bags woven by artisans for a Mexico-based company focused on sustainability and other moves.
It is also shifting to more electric vehicles for baggage trucks and aircraft tow trucks. Delta’s ground support equipment fleet is 25% electric today, and plans call for that to be 50% by 2025 and 100% either electrified or renewable energy-powered by 2035.
Airlines are already highly motivated to reduce their use of jet fuel, because fuel is one of their largest expenses. Delta said it aims to improve the fuel efficiency of its fleet by 10% by 2025, 20% by 2035 and 40% by 2050.
Delta said it plans to reduce its fuel use in part through drag-reduction technology on some aircraft. By 2050, it aims for 25% of its fleet to be “revolutionary aircraft.” Airbus has partnered with Delta to explore the idea of hydrogen-powered aircraft.
Delta has also partnered with MIT to research ways to reduce contrails that trap heat and create one of aviation’s largest environmental impacts.
In January, Delta announced plans for an innovation lab focused on sustainability, which will include efforts like the MIT research among its partnerships.
Fletcher said in a written statement that “we are as dedicated to making immediate progress as we are to investing wisely in disruptive solutions.”
Other airlines have taken different approaches.
Chicago-based United Airlines has formed a joint venture called Blue Blade Energy to develop and commercialize sustainable aviation fuel using ethanol, in partnership with Lakewood, Colorado- and Leawood, Kansas-based Tallgrass and Omaha, Nebraska-based Green Plains Inc.
United also created a United Airlines Ventures Sustainable Flight Fund to accelerate research and production of sustainable aviation fuel, with more than $100 million in investment from Air Canada, Boeing, GE Aerospace, Honeywell and JPMorgan Chase.
United also shows customers the carbon footprint of the flight they are booking and offers the option to contribute to the sustainable flight fund.
Some airports overseas are also taking major actions toward sustainability.
London’s Heathrow Airport is encouraging airlines to use sustainable aviation fuel by creating a fund to pay for an incentive covering a portion of the extra cost.
Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has spent years on smaller efforts toward sustainability. It spent years trying to get a composting and recycling facility called Green Acres built on airport grounds, but could not get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for the project. Compost carries with it the risk of attracting wildlife such as birds that could become a hazard to aircraft taking off and landing. Last year, the project was canceled.
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