When it comes to sustainability, airlines are slow to fly


Four years ago, electric vehicles were still a niche industry, accounting for 1.4% of total vehicle sales in the US, according to a report by CleanTechnica, a website covering the cleantech industry. That number is set to quadruple by 2022, according to the report, and the Biden administration recently proposed new regulations 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 even before tax incentives, according to a Bloomberg analysis. Electric vehicles have become mainstream – you can too Rent one for your road trip,

But what about air travel? Last time I checked, electric airplanes accounted for exactly 0% of the commercial aviation fleet. In 2021, United Airlines announced that it would purchase 100 electric aircraft for operation by 2026. But each of these planes will carry 19 passengers and their flight distance will be only 250 miles.

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

scope of stability problem

Jets burn fuel – a lot – to move people around the world. According to a report by the Institute for Environmental and Energy Studies, if commercial aviation were its own country, it would rank sixth between Germany and Japan in terms of total emissions.

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

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

This is why many climate initiatives focus on so-called “sustainable aviation fuels”, or SAFs, to replace the fossil fuels currently used to power aircraft. But, again, the industry is far behind in turning to green alternatives. As of 2019, only 0.1% of the fuel used was SAF, according to a World Economic Forum report.

What is being done to improve stability?

If you’re like me, reading all these shocking facts fills you with dread and maybe a vague sense of guilt. However, there are ways 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.

Still, it’s unfair to rely on consumers to change their habits. Vehicle fuel consumption will not become sustainable because everyone decides to stop driving – it will happen because regulations and technological innovations (such as electric vehicles) make sustainable choices easier for consumers.

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

several US Airlines Has made ambitious pledges to improve sustainability through fleet improvements, SAFs and carbon offsets. Yet pledging is one thing, and sacrificing short-term gains to actually reduce emissions is another.

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

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

Until passengers get serious about holding airlines accountable for their climate pledges, or until federal regulations force them to, the aviation industry will lag behind in emissions.

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