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  • Jacob Bourne

As Travel Revives, Airline Industry Inches Toward Sustainable Fuels and Electric Planes

Following a steep decline in air travel in 2020 due to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, Transportation Security Administration flight data shows that travel is inching back up to 2019 levels. With that comes more aircraft emissions released high in the atmosphere triggering a potent heating effect. It’s estimated that a single flight from Montreal to London releases carbon emissions equivalent to heating a home in Europe for a whole year. As a result, some industry players are now taking steps to lessen air travel’s high carbon footprint.

Airbus electric E-Fan airplane
Airbus all-electric E-Fan prototype flying in Berlin in 2014. Credit: Shutterstock/Philipp Hayer

As part of a strategy to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, American Airlines is participating in a Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) to develop a parallel emissions reduction target by 2035 in line with the latest climate science.

“We’re committing to set a science-based target for 2035 because the seriousness of the climate challenge demands it,” said Doug Parker, Chairman and CEO of American Airlines. “We’ve already laid a strong foundation by prioritizing near-term solutions to reduce our emissions, like renewing our fleet with more fuel-efficient aircraft.”

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The strategy entails fleet renewal, using sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and operational improvements. In pursuit of advancing low-emission aircraft technology, American invested in Vertical Aerospace, a UK-based aeronautical company developing electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. The investment involves the potential pre-order of 250 aircraft in a commitment valued at $1 billion and an additional $25 million investment.

In addition to committing to order 15 Boom Overture jets that will run on 100% SAF, United Airlines has also invested in electric aircraft startup Heart Aerospace. The Sweden-based startup is developing ES-19, an electric plane to be ready for take-off in 2026.

Replacing the world’s existing stock of fossil fuel-powered aircraft is likely impossible at present and would require a significant expenditure of carbon emissions during the production process. Also the prospect of developing large commercial electric aircraft is limited by the heavy weight of batteries. As such, upgrading the sustainability of fuels is a central strategy, and American has committed to purchasing up to 10 million gallons of fuel from Prometheus Fuels, a company that produces zero-net carbon fuels using the direct air capture of CO2.

Using direct air capture to produce synthetic SAF doesn’t negate emissions but is akin to recycling CO2, so there are no net emissions. However, the sustainability potential of this approach is reduced by the finding that one unit of emitted carbon isn’t equivalent to one unit of removed carbon because of the cascading effects of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Direct air capture is also expensive and energy-intensive.

Another airline, JetBlue, has also adopted SAF for a proportion of flights at Los Angeles International Airport through a relationship with World Energy and World Fuel Services. In addition, JetBlue has reportedly been using SAF for its flights from San Francisco International Airport through SAF producer World Energy.

Meanwhile, Philips 66 and Southwest Airlines have a memorandum of understanding on the table to advance the use of SAF that could include a future supply agreement for fuel produced at the Philips 66 Rodeo Renewed project in Northern California. The project involves transitioning an oil refinery to a biofuel production plant geared to be the largest in the world. Production of diesel, gas and SAF from used cooking oil, fats, greases and soybean oil is expected to begin in 2024.

Many immediate operational changes can be made in the airline industry to make it more sustainable. For example, American is tackling some by using optimization software to track weather conditions and determine the right altitudes and wind speeds to maximize efficiency. The company claims adoption of the software for 85% of its mainline aircraft resulted in three million tons of fuel saved.

Although planes are the crux of the air travel industry’s carbon footprint, airports are also stepping up sustainability efforts. For example, San Diego Community Power announced that soon it will supply enough renewable energy to run San Diego International Airport entirely. LAX has a similar goal but won’t be achieved until 2045.


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