The Aviation Industry is Making Strides Toward a Greener Future: Plane and Simple

By Ben Ahrens Published on Sep. 21, 2022

The airline industry is often criticized for the immense amount of pollution aircrafts produce, which significantly exacerbates global warming and climate change. However, in recent months, domestic airlines have announced plans to take measures that might alleviate some of the criticisms made against them: a goal to reduce their carbon emissions to net zero within 30 years.

In March 2021, the airline sector in the United States made a sweeping commitment to protect the environment. Airlines for America, which represents many major US airlines, announced that its members have committed to reducing carbon emissions by 2050.

It's a big goal, especially for airlines that have had climate goals for years like Atlas Air, American Airlines, and Federal Express Corporation. On the other hand, the coronavirus pandemic has served as a catalyst for many carriers to take more significant action in mitigating climate change.

The industry is forecast to begin its long, post-pandemic recovery in the next few years and return to pre-COVID-19 traffic levels by 2023 or 2024.

The airlines' goals come as the industry is forecast to begin its long, post-pandemic recovery in the next few years and return to pre-COVID-19 traffic levels by 2023 or 2024, according to the International Air Transport Association.

But even as airlines emerge from the crisis, they’ll face new challenges to shrink their carbon footprints and become more environmentally sustainable.

That's where those net zero pledges come into play. At Plug and Play's 2021 Summer Summit, panelists pointed out that to reach these ambitious goals, there are areas where new carbon neutrality technologies are needed, like carbon capture, low carbon fuels, and energy storage. Airlines will have to decarbonize their fleets with electric or alternative-fuel aircraft, make substantial operational changes, and purchase carbon offsets in order to meet these targets.

United Airlines is at the forefront of this transition and has become one of the major US airlines to commit to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Unlike other airlines, United will not rely on traditional carbon offsets.

To get there, United plans to invest in sustainable aviation fuels, make infrastructure improvements, and purchase carbon offsets. The carrier is also working with other airlines and organizations on technological advancements that will help reduce emissions across the industry.

In 2021, United Airlines became the first commercial carrier to fly a completely sustainable fuel-powered flight. "We're demonstrating the scalable and impactful way companies can join together and play a role in addressing the biggest challenge of our lifetimes," said United CEO Scott Kirby in a statement.

Due to the rise of social movements like flight shaming, many European carriers and airports are also becoming increasingly active in combatting adverse climate effects. Lufthansa Groups's airlines, such as Lufthansa, Swiss, Austrian Airlines, and Brussels Airlines, are launching their new Green Fare program that functions as a form of carbon offsetting. This will include 80% of the carbon being offset through climate protection projects and the remaining 20% through the use of sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF, to power flights.

New aircraft startups are also planning to be carbon neutral from the start, thanks to SAF. Boom Supersonic is one of these startups transforming air travel with the world's fastest airliner, Overture. This aircraft will fly at twice the speed of today's airlines and is designed to run on 100% SAF. Due to their climate mission and the top-of-the-line technology, Boom Supersonic already has purchases and options from large commercial airliners such as American Airlines, United Airlines, and Japan Airlines, with 130 aircraft currently on their order book.

Another aircraft manufacturer that's focused on sustainability is Heart Aerospace. Their first aircraft is the ES-19, a 19-passenger, electric regional airliner with an operating range of 400 km. These zero-emission, low-noise aircrafts look to be a cost-effective and green solution for short-haul flights by making use of runways as short as 750 m and utilizing the vast network of small airports close to city centers. Although Heart Aerospace is starting with these smaller planes, they plan to manufacture larger aircraft in the future as well.

Commercial airlines aren't the only ones feeling pressure to go green. The private jet industry is also under scrutiny for its environmental impact.

Just 1% of the global population cause over 50% of international aviation emissions.

While commercial airlines have made great strides in reducing their carbon footprint, the same can't be said of the private jet industry. In fact, according to a recent study published in the journal Global Environmental Change, just 1% of the global population cause over 50% of international aviation emissions.

However, some private jet companies are taking steps to change that. VistaJet, a worldwide private jet operator, has set itself the goal of carbon neutrality by 2025, two decades earlier than previous aviation industry goals aiming for net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The company plans to achieve this by enabling fixed-rate members to offset their VIP travel flights, as well as encouraging consumers to book ahead of time. To avoid any short repositioning flights, they propose using nearby airline lots that are more convenient.

Corporate travel partner and management company, TravelPerk, is another business utilizing carbon offsetting practices for business trips. The company offers a no-commission carbon offsetting service called GreenPerk, which seeks to promote high-impact sustainability initiatives across the world. Their in-house specialists choose VERRA (Verified Carbon Standard) certified initiatives that are third-party verified and meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

As airlines and private jet companies alike face increasing pressure to reduce their environmental impact, it's clear that the quest for net zero carbon emissions is well underway.

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