As the world emerges from over a year of a stagnated travel industry and grounded flights, record numbers of Americans are taking long-desired vacations. Yet, a category of new and lesser expected ventures has also begun to develop in the airline industry: environmental friendliness.
Over the past several months, many of the major U.S. airline carriers (unofficially the five are United Airlines, Delta Airlines, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and JetBlue) have made investments in cleaner energy practices, upgraded in-flight experiences, technological innovation, and new fleets of airliners designed to secure a more sustainable future for the travel industry.
America’s airline industry has long been notorious for its resistance to change, particularly in comparison to Europe’s highly competitive and innovative carriers, who have been at the forefront of both price competitiveness and technological advancement (largely epitomized by BAC’s Concorde launch in 1976). However, America’s homegrown carriers are beginning to forge the way with more sustainable air travel solutions. While the movement towards more environmentally friendly methods of airline travel falls far short of alleviating the frustration customers have expressed with the industry, the incremental changes acknowledge the industry-wide shift demanded by the public.
Advancements in the industry include sustainable fleet upgrades as well as new fuel technologies. Of note is that although all of the United States’s major airlines have yet to announce plans for sustainability, upgrades, or net-zero carbon targets, history suggests that when one carrier makes a change for a competitive advantage, the others follow suit — and quickly.
In June, United Airlines announced a new commercial agreement with a Colorado-based aerospace company, Boom Supersonic, providing the major carrier with up to thirty-five fleet additions that will function on sustainable airline fuel (SAF) — jet fuel that is sourced from livestock waste oils — and operate at net-zero carbon levels on day one. The announcement was one in a series of releases from United Airlines about new endeavors as the organization commits to cleaner practices. In turn, major airliner JetBlue is also upping its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.
In addition to United’s contract for supersonic airplanes to begin flight post-2025, they also have recently released information about their purchase of one hundred,19-seat airliners that are fully electric. The planes will be sourced from Swedish company Heart Aerospace and slated for flight in 2026. Critics of electric vehicles of all sorts express concern over travel distance and competency in unforeseen circumstances. The new ES-19 models will be capable of flying 400 kilometers (248.548 miles). However, the company expects advancements in battery density. Therefore, flight duration should expand quickly. Four percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are from voyages less than 124 miles in length, with 9 percent coming from those less than 400 kilometers in length. So, despite what some may call a limited range, the reduction in emissions has the potential to go a long way.
Michael Leskinen, Vice President of Corporate Development at United, said, “As battery technology improves, larger-gauge aircraft should become viable, but we’re not going to wait to begin the journey. That’s why we’re looking forward to beginning our work with Heart, so that, together, we can scale the availability of electric airliners and use them for passenger flights within the next five years.” United has also set a goal to reduce their GHG emissions by 100 percent come 2050.
Similarly, JetBlue announced their expanded usage of sustainable airline fuel in partnership with World Energy and World Fuel Services. The agreement is slated to last three years and begin at the beginning of July 2021, kicking off with flights from Los Angeles’s LAX airport. Currently, the agreement allows for 1.5M gallons of mixed SAF a year (for the next three years), making up 5 percent of JetBlue’s Los Angeles fuel supply.
JetBlue has already outlined net-zero carbon goals to be achieved by 2040. Last year they were the first airline to make all domestic flights carbon neutral. This was a trend the other major airliners scurried to follow.
With several announcements around new, innovative partnerships that, prior to 2020, perhaps would seem far-fetched, it seems feasible that the entire US-based travel industry may be on the brink of a sustainability overhaul.