When It Comes to Sustainability, Airlines Are Slow to Take Off

While other modes of transportation aggressively reduce emissions, aviation remains a laggard.
Sam Kemmis
By Sam Kemmis 
Edited by Giselle M. Cancio

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Four years ago, electric vehicles were still a niche industry, accounting for 1.4% of total vehicle sales in the U.S., according to a report from CleanTechnica, a website covering the cleantech industry. That number, according to the report, quadrupled by 2022, and the Biden administration recently proposed new rules that would make two-thirds of passenger vehicle sales electric by 2032.

A Tesla Model 3 now costs $4,930 less than the average new car, according to an analysis by Bloomberg, even before tax incentives. Electric vehicles have become mainstream — you can even rent one for your road trip.

But what about air travel? Last time I checked, electric airplanes accounted for precisely 0% of the commercial aviation fleet. In 2021, United Airlines announced that it would buy 100 electric planes for operation by 2026. But these planes would hold 19 passengers each and have a flight distance of a mere 250 miles.

So yeah, electric aircraft probably won’t soon solve the aviation industry’s emission problem. But what will? And, more importantly, why are airlines so far behind on this pressing issue?

The scope of the sustainability problem

Jets burn fuel — lots of it — to move people around the globe. If commercial aviation were its own country, it would rank sixth, between Germany and Japan, in terms of total emissions, according to a report from the Environmental and Energy Study Institute.

The big problem is this: There’s no reasonable alternative to fuel-gobbling aircraft on the horizon. Hydrogen-powered planes are hypothetically feasible, but the commercial implementation of such technology lies at least 15 or 20 years away, according to a report from Oliver Wyman, a management consulting firm based in New York City. Electric aircraft will probably never carry you across the country, never mind the ocean, because of weight and range limitations.

Airlines can reduce emissions by improving their fleets’ fuel efficiency. For example, Delta Air Lines estimated it cut 10 million gallons of fuel in 2022 through these efficiency improvement tactics. But these upgrades, such as fuel efficiency improvements to passenger vehicles, can only do so much. At some point, aircraft and operations will be as streamlined as possible, and they’ll still be burning loads of fuel.

That’s why many climate initiatives focus on so-called “sustainable aviation fuels,” or SAFs, to replace the fossil fuel currently used to power aircraft. But, again, the industry is way behind in transitioning to greener options. As of 2019, only about 0.1% of the fuels used were SAFs, according to a World Economic Forum report.

What’s being done to improve sustainability?

If you’re like me, reading all these alarming facts fills you with a vague sense of dread and, maybe, guilt. However, there are ways to reduce your carbon footprint while traveling, such as taking more direct flights and visiting transit-friendly destinations. And no, they won’t offset the huge carbon impact of deciding to fly in the first place.

Yet, it’s unreasonable to depend on consumers to change their habits. Vehicle fuel consumption won’t become sustainable because everyone decides to stop driving — it will happen because regulations and technological innovation (such as electric vehicles) make sustainable options easy for consumers.

Just as the automotive industry needed a kick from Tesla to start taking electric vehicles seriously, something must happen in aviation to catalyze a similar change.

Many U.S. airlines have made ambitious pledges to improve sustainability through fleet improvements, SAFs and carbon offsets. Yet pledges are one thing, and actually sacrificing short-term profit to reduce emissions is another.

For example, many advocates suggest that first- and business-class travel generates far more per-passenger emissions than economy fares. In fact, according to an analysis by IBA, an aviation consulting firm, the two U.S. airlines with the lowest emissions per passenger are Frontier and Spirit — partly because they pack passengers in so tightly.

In other words, Delta and Alaska could easily slash their emissions by eliminating their first-class cabins. But I’m not holding my breath.

Until passengers get serious about holding airlines accountable for their climate pledges, or until federal regulations begin forcing them to, the aviation industry will remain an emissions laggard.

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