Skift Take

Aviation is becoming a target for policymakers and climate emergency activists. Leaders from Delta, Air France-KLM, and McKinsey have highlighted some heartening ways to address the carbon reduction challenge.

Aviation contributes only about 3 percent of the greenhouse gases that worsen climate change, but airplanes don’t have good options to switch away from hydrocarbons. So aviation risks becoming a target for anger among green activists, threatening the long-term viability of mass-market leisure flights.

Some airline industry leaders on Wednesday highlighted promising and hopeful ways to reduce aviation’s carbon emissions, such as by switching to more fuel-efficient aircraft and trying fuel alternatives, in an on-stage conversation with Skift Editor-in-Chief Tom Lowry on Wednesday at Skift Aviation Forum 2022 in Dallas-Fort Worth.

Switching fleets to more fuel-efficient aircraft is one lever for carriers to pull. During the pandemic, Air France-KLM many airlines retired aircraft from service. It has since prioritized the return to service of its most fuel-efficient planes. For example, the Airbus A350 has up to 25 percent fewer emissions than some older aircraft, said Marion N. Chivot-Legris, head of sustainability North America.

Pursuing alternative fuels is another option. In the U.S., federal and state incentives, funding, and regulations are encouraging producers to experiment with a variety of fuel alternatives. In Europe, government mandates are encouraging similar innovations. Earlier this year France mandated that the aviation sector adopt at least 1 percent of sustainable aviation fuels, or SAF, with a target of 5 percent by 2030.

Hydrogen-powered aircraft is a promising technological solution, but delivery isn’t expected until around 2035, Chivot-Legris said.

“Modeling suggests it’s going to be really hard and, as an industry, we’re probably not going to get there, though I think leading airlines will achieve their goals,” said Ameila DeLuca, vice president of sustainability, Delta Airlines.

But demand both internally and externally for solutions plus the rapid pace of technological change makes DeLuca cautiously optimistic about the long-term.

“I do think in 20150 a solution that’s hydrogen or electric can probably cover most regional flying,” DeLuca predicted.

Yet DeLuca also cautioned the industry about getting ahead of itself. While efforts to reduce the contrails that aircraft produce, which are known to trap more heat on the planet, are promising, airlines can’t rush into new practices unless they can be “measured and quantified, both the impact today and as well the abatement in the future,” DeLuca said.

Aviation may in some respects be easier to decarbonize because, compared with other travel sectors, its supply chains are fairly concentrated and companies have a lot of direct control.

Yet leisure travelers haven’t yet been willing to pay for low-carbon flight alternatives, hindering progress.

“We call it a ‘See and Do Gap,'” said Danielle Bozarth, senior partner at McKinsey & Company. “Consumers talk about how much they care about sustainability. “Then you ask them to go pay for it and we see virtually no willingness to pay for it among leisure travelers.”

Business travelers, however, are demanding solutions, which has become one factor concentrating the minds of airline executives. Consultancies such as McKinsey & Company have been examining their travel-related carbon impacts more closely in the past few years.

“We have a commitment to reduce each of our consultants’ emissions footprint by 30 percent by 2025, and 80 percent of our emissions is from travel,” said Bozarth of McKinsey. “We’re being more thoughtful about our trips.”

A recent report by Skift Research, in partnership with McKinsey & Company, provides four strategies for travel companies to put net-zero words into action.

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Tags: air france-klm, air france-klm group, airline innovation, biofuels, climate change, dallas/fort worth international airport, delta, delta air lines, mckinsey and company, net zero, net zero emissions, saf2022, skift live, sustainability

Photo credit: Addressing airlines' carbon impact, leaders from Delta, Air France-KLM, and McKinsey highlighted some fixes at Skift Aviation Forum 2022 in Dallas-Fort Worth. Source: Skift.

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