Earth Month represents the opportunity to celebrate the innovation and ingenuity that have allowed our industry to be cleaner and more efficient. For U.S. airlines, it is the time we recommit ourselves to leaving a better planet for future generations.
Airlines only contribute about 2% of domestic greenhouse gas emissions, and all while transporting over two million passengers and 65,000 tons of cargo per day. That’s a stellar record—especially when you consider that U.S. airlines are the gold standard of transportation safety and all the jobs that airlines support here in the U.S. and around the globe.
Today, U.S. airlines directly employ 791,000 workers, supporting more than 10 million U.S. jobs and contributing nearly $1.5 trillion in U.S. economic activity annually. And we are doing it while embracing our industry’s responsibility to make our operations 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, A4A member carrier airlines pledged to work with government and across the aviation sector to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. IATA followed suit and the U.S. government followed our lead, adopting parallel goals in October and November of that year. This is just one example of our nation’s passenger and cargo carriers leading the world in their commitment to growing sustainably.
It’s an ambitious goal, but we’re continuing to build upon our record of success: 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.
Key to our achieving a net-zero carbon future is sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Made from biobased and other non-petroleum feedstocks, SAF available today can reduce aviation carbon emissions by up to 80%. SAF is made today from inedible waste oils and fats, and in the near future will be made from sustainable crops, woody waste, or even municipal solid waste. One industry’s trash is another industry’s treasure!
Unfortunately, scaling up on SAF is challenging because its production costs significantly more than traditional jet 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 is encouraging progress—but producers need long-term certainty to make their investments in SAF worth it.
Investments in SAF are not the only way airlines are working to create a more sustainable future. A4A member carriers have continuously invested in more fuel-efficient aircraft and engines and implemented more efficient procedures. U.S. passenger airlines are investing record amounts in 2022 and 2023 in aircraft, facilities, ground equipment, technology and other capital goods and projects. Our fleet is cleaner than ever, and some carriers are even investing in carbon capture and direct air capture technologies.
In the cabin, carriers are also making changes like using recyclable packaging and utensils for food service that further reduce our environmental footprint, while improving the passenger experience. In the cockpit, they are using cutting edge route optimization software. And, on the ground, our industry is improving efficiency by decreasing idling times and runway delays. We know that these “little” changes and upgrades matter to customers and to the planet, and they add up.
Becoming increasingly sustainable is right for the airline industry, for the planet, and it’s what consumers expect. In fact, nearly 60% of travelers value airline commitments to real environmental improvements.
Along with getting customers to their destination safely and on-time, U.S. airlines will continue advancing their environmental goals and hiring the workforce to support these goals.
• Tim Pohle is the Vice President of Environmental Affairs for Airlines for America (A4A). A4A works collaboratively with airlines, labor, Congress, the administration and other groups to improve aviation for the traveling and shipping public.
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