Each day, millions of travelers are boarding airplanes and taking to the sky. U.S. airlines are employing a record 767,000 workers, supporting more than 10 million U.S. jobs and contributing nearly $1.7 trillion in U.S. economic activity. And we are doing it while embracing our responsibility to making our operations greener and our skies cleaner.
We are proud of our industry’s track record of leading on environmental sustainability, and we are committed to meeting aggressive goals to build a brighter future for generations to come. In March 2021, we made a pledge to work with government and across the aviation sector to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
This goal may be relatively new but it is a natural extension of our long history of reducing emissions even as we have grown to become an indispensable driver of global, national and local economy prosperity. U.S. air carriers transport over two million passengers and 65,000 tons of cargo per day yet contribute just 2% of U.S. domestic greenhouse gas emissions.
Our success is not happenstance, but the result of unrelenting efforts over decades to improve the sustainability of our industry. U.S. airlines improved their fuel efficiency (on a revenue ton mile basis) by more than 135% between 1978 and 2021, saving over 5.5 billion metric tons of CO2. That equates to taking more than 28 million cars off the road every year for over 40 years!
We are a green industry, but airlines understand that we must redouble efforts to fully decarbonize.
The bottom line is that we will not achieve this future without transitioning from fossil-based fuel to Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). Made from biobased feedstock, SAF available today can reduce aviation carbon emissions by up to 80% — and may even be carbon-negative in the future. This low-carbon future is built on years of working with government and the broader aviation industry to certify that SAF is safe and prove that it can be produced at scale.
A primary challenge today is that producing SAF is significantly more expensive than fossil-fuel.
Recent federal tax credits and grants incentivizing SAF represent precisely the type of public-private partnership the government and airlines called for to achieve our mutual goal of making 3 billion gallons of cost-competitive SAF available to U.S. aircraft operators in 2030. This success is encouraging—but producers need long-term certainty in order to make their investments in SAF worth it.
More must be done to ensure that commercial-scale quantities of sustainable feedstocks are available, there is adequate infrastructure to transport and process these feedstocks and, ultimately, get SAF in our fuel tanks. Most importantly, long-term support for SAF would spur the investment necessary to build enough facilities to produce 3 billion gallons of SAF in 2030. Quite simply, without this support, we and our partners in government and across the industry will fall far short of our shared SAF goal.
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions to preserve our planet is a global challenge that requires global solutions. This is why the airline industry voluntarily committed to a global agreement to reduce and offset carbon emissions The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA).
A4A member carriers have continuously invested in more fuel-efficient aircraft and engines and implemented more efficient procedures. In flight, advancing sustainability is often more visible, like using recyclable packaging and utensils for food service, but sometimes it can be less apparent like using cutting edge route optimization software. On the ground, improving efficiency comes by decreasing idling times and runway delays. These little things matter, and they add up!
We still have room to improve, but we are proud of the work our carriers do every day to prioritize safety while deepening our shared commitment to the environment. We are determined to continue pushing forward. It’s right for the industry, it’s right for the environment and it’s right for the generations who will follow us.
• Tim Pohle is Vice President of Environmental Affairs for Airlines for America (A4A). An environmental attorney, Pohle leads A4A in developing policies on domestic environmental issues of national significance, including water quality, air quality, aircraft noise and climate change. Pohle also represented A4A members for over a decade at the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection negotiating aircraft and aircraft engines standards.