Industry news

What airlines are doing to help sustainable travel

Sustainable travel practices are becoming a greater priority, for corporate travellers and their companies. A recent Global Business Travel Association report confirmed that the majority of travel managers are being asked to find more sustainable travel practices. Travel managers also agreed that it’s important to empower travellers to make sustainable travel choices.

Air travel is a vital part of doing business in a competitive market. Business travellers represent a growing proportion of the 4.5 billion passenger journeys each year. Yet many companies are recognising the importance of travelling sustainably. Airlines are facing increased scrutiny over the impact of flying and fortunately the aviation industry is stepping up. Many airlines are leading with innovative responses to the climate challenge and introducing a range of environment-focused initiatives.

Etihad and Boeing set a sustainable travel course

Etihad Airways and Boeing have formed a first-of-its-kind ‘eco partnership’. A specially-themed Boeing 787 Dreamliner is being used to test products, procedures and initiatives designed to reduce aircraft carbon emissions.

The modified Greenliner flew from Charleston, South Carolina, to Abu Dhabi on 23 January this year. After its inaugural 13-hour flight, the flagship aircraft is now cleared to research more sustainable methods of flying.

Etihad has one of the largest fleet of Dreamliners in the world. It has introduced them on 38 of its 76 passenger routes to replace less-efficient aircraft and increase capacity. They will continue to expand their use in 2020. According to Etihad, the deployment of 787s has led to significant reductions in fuel consumption. Carbon emissions across the airline’s network are also lower, independently of other initiatives.

Etihad is urging all those involved in the industry to collaborate on reducing CO2. The carrier has invited other stakeholders, from equipment suppliers to airspace regulators, to join them in advancing and testing efficiency measures with the Greenliner.

Etihad new Greenliner will research more sustainable travel initiatives.
Etihad’s new Greenliner will be used to test sustainably-led technologies. Courtesy Etihad

JetBlue to offset flight emissions

In one of the boldest moves, JetBlue intends to be carbon-neutral on all its domestic flights by July, 2020. The American carrier estimates it will add offsets to between 15 billion and 17 billion pounds of emissions per year. JetBlue will invest in carbon offsets by financially supporting environmental projects. These include forest conservation, landfill gas capture programs and development of solar and wind farms.

JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes said that the offsets are “preparing our business for the lower-carbon economy that aviation, and all sectors, must plan for.” In addition, JetBlue this year will begin using a lower-carbon fuel, produced from waste and residue raw materials, on flights from San Francisco.

Delta to invest $1 billion

Over the next 10 years, Delta plans to invest $1 billion to become and remain carbon neutral.

In addition to cutting jet fuel use, the airline will be investing in more fuel-efficient aircraft. They also plan to improve operations and fund the development of sustainable aircraft fuels. Plus the carrier will invest in projects and technology to remove emissions from the atmosphere.

Delta has already been piloting a program to offset carbon emissions with some of its corporate clients. The carrier will expand this program and continue to work with its employees and customers to minimise impact.

The good oil on Australian airlines

Biofuel or sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) can cut emissions by up to 80 per cent, compared to regular jet fuel. The cost of SAF is coming down and biofuels are no longer just old oil from fish and chip shops. Today algae, industrial waste gases and forestry slash can be used to produce SAF. When Qantas operated the world’s first SAF-fuelled flight from Los Angeles to Melbourne last year, the Dreamliner 787-9 was powered by non-edible mustard seed.

Brisbane airport was the first in the country to trial regular use of SAF, as part of a Virgin Australia initiative. All Virgin aircraft operating in and out of Brisbane Airport have been using a renewable jet fuel blend that’s put through the general fuel supply system.

Danya Field, chief legal and risk officer at Virgin Australia commented, “We are actively looking at ways to reduce our carbon emissions and low-carbon fuels present a real opportunity. As a diversified airline group, we know that establishing a local low-carbon fuel industry will have positive environmental, social and economic impacts.”

Virgin Australia has also removed uncertified Palm Oil from their lounges and inflight menus across Australia and New Zealand. Uncertified Palm Oil production is a leading cause of deforestation, which threatens endangered wildlife species and their habitat. The airline wants to ensure that the products they use on board reflect their commitment to upholding sustainable practices.

Taking another route to cut CO2 emissions

The high cost of aviation fuel is a big motivator for airlines to reduce fuel consumption, and therefore emissions. One way they can be more efficient is regularly upgrading their fleets. Ageing and oversized aircraft are costly, for the airlines and the environment.

The International Council of Clean Transportation (ICCT) rates the A350-900 as one of the most fuel-efficient aircraft. The Airbus is reported to use 25% less fuel than other leading models, so airlines are consciously expanding their A350 fleet. These include Cathay Pacific, Delta Airlines, LATAM  and other international carriers that are awaiting delivery in 2020. Qantas has recently selected a modified A350-1000 over the Boeing 777X for their Project Sunrise flights and is expected to sign the agreement with Airbus in March.

Sustainable travel tweaks you might not have thought about

The big issue with air travel is primarily carbon emissions. Fact is most aircraft still use fossil fuels, and there are more flights than ever. But there are other aspects of the in-flight service that can be modified to reduce our carbon footprint.

Take the drinks service for example. Airlines have listened to our contempt for plastic straws and willingness to do without plastic stirrers or swizzle sticks. You’ll no longer find them on board Virgin Australia, Qantas, Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Delta, American Airlines, United and a growing list of other carriers. To put this change in perspective, in one year Delta alone previously used 170 million plastic straws and 12 million plastic stirrers!

Qantas plans to phase out paper boarding passes and plastic frequent flyer cards. They also intend to be the first airline to reuse, recycle and compost 75 per cent of its waste by the end of 2021. What impact will this have? 50 million Qantas passengers each year are responsible for more than 30,000 tonnes of weight, according to Qantas’ chief executive Alan Joyce.

We’ve seen the first single-use plastic-free flights from Portugal to Brazil with carrier Hi Fly and Abu Dhabi to Brisbane on Etihad in April 2019. Single-use plastic products are being replaced with edible coffee cups, lightweight stainless steel cutlery and other environmentally-friendly alternatives.

Food trays of the future could look something like this. A base made out of coffee grains, waffle cone for the desert dish, and soluble seaweed pods containing milk or salad dressing. The salad dish can be made from algae or a pressed banana leaf. Lightweight coconut wood utensils are an ideal alternative to traditional cutlery.

sustainable travel and the future of in flight food tray designs
In-flight food trays of the future, with eco-friendly & edible packaging. Designer & credit: PriestmanGoode

Aiming for zero climate impact by 2050

This is by no means a comprehensive list of all the actions that airlines are undertaking to address the climate challenge. Aviation has been deeply engaged in making air travel sustainable for at least the last decade. Carbon emissions from the average journey are reported to have halved since 1990 and over 215,000 flights have used sustainable aviation fuels.

There’s still more to be done, but the airline industry is taking its environmental impact seriously. In 2016 it adopted a Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). This is the first time any industry has agreed to a global market-based measure to address climate change. Airlines must now monitor and report the carbon emissions from their international flights. In 2021, they will be required to offset them as well.

The International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation has a vision for “zero climate impact” by 2050 and is working with governments and industry partners to implement short and long term goals. So watch this space to see how business travellers can benefit from more sustainable travel solutions!

Back to news index