Airlines embrace the environment — it’s good for their bottom line (win-win)

by Charlie Leocha on September 13, 2013

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In the world of environmentalists, it is normally considered the “right thing to do” to pay attention to consider the effects on planet Earth. But, these days, airlines, once considered a poster child for excessive pollution, have found environmental religion. Have they been converted by demonstrators or bad press? No, they have discovered the power of profits.

Airlines are racing to embrace the environment (they actually have been doing this for some time) because the carbon emissions that they save go right to their bottom line. Every gallon of jet fuel that airlines save means more profits. When flights travel in more direct routes, the airline cash register rings. When jet engines become more efficient, airlines enjoy more income.

It is simple. With the aviation industry, environmentalists have found the perfect companion. Airlines don’t need to feel they should save the planet because of social pressure. They have the drive of bigger profits that tends to be far more endearing to the capitalistic mind.

Yesterday, I attended ATW’s Eco-Aviation Conference in Washington, D.C. It was a gathering of executives from the airlines, aircraft manufacturers, aerospace instrument designers, jet engine companies and others who have a place in making sure that the entire spectrum of aviation gets its just profits from being kind to the environment.

The aviation industry “gets” the environment but they don’t get much credit for their successes in improving it. Airlines for America (A4A) VP-environmental affairs Nancy Young said, “The poster child for environmental action has to be in the area of climate change. US airlines have improved their fuel efficiency by 120 percent between 1978 and 2012, saving 3.4 billion metric tons of CO2, roughly equivalent to taking 22 million cars off the road each of those years. As a result, US airlines account for only 2 percent of the nation’s inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, yet they drive more than 5 percent of the nation’s GDP.”

The discussions boiled down to three main areas — developing new technology to save fuel, exploring the production of biofuels to supplement carbon-based jet fuel and improving the air traffic control system. This conference focused more on the first two areas; however, air traffic control improvements were discussed briefly.

The conference also served as a venue for the Eco-Aviation Awards that recognized airlines and other aviation stakeholders who have made significant strides in the field of the environment.

United Airlines was awarded the Gold Airline of the Year — among other achievements, United Airlines improved its fuel efficiency by 20 percent and is on track to “reduce fuel usage by 85 million gallons and associated carbon emissions by 828,750 metric tons.”

United was also the first US airline to fly a commercial flight powered by biofuel and the first North American airline to fly using fuel developed from natural gas.

Airberlin was noted as the Silver Eco-Airline of the Year. Its accomplishments included the best reduction of fuel burn of any European airline. The second largest airline in Germany has introduced an “aerodynamic audit tool” and introduced voluntary “fuel coaching” to promote fuel-efficiency awareness among its pilots.

The Eco-Pioneer Award went to Qantas for its Environmental Priority Package. The partnership award went to Airbus and Air Canada for their “Perfect Flight” initiative, which maximized the current environmental improvements combining biofuels with lighter aircraft and the latest fuel-efficient engines. Finally, WheelTug won Eco-Technology of the Year with its innovative system for powering aircraft while taxiing on the runway without using the airplane’s engines.

Of course, there was plenty of discussion of the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) upcoming conference on the environment and plans for new proposals that will be proposed. The group discussed the European Union’s Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) that the EU was eventually forced to withdraw because of strong international objections. Of course, the ETS will be hovering over the discussions at ICAO as a threat should the international community of airlines not move forward with some new environmental objectives.

For the time being, the ETS is only being applied to European airlines that take off and land within Europe. However, the EU is reserving the right to impose carbon offset charges to incoming aircraft if there are no further environmental concessions coming from ICAO.

After a full day of discussions with everyone from Boeing to Airbus, Air Berlin to Qantas, WheelTug to the Aerospace Industries Association, airports to lobbyists and the top airline environmental executives, one has an understanding that the aviation industry has found environmental religion.

Finding profits in saving the planet makes the free market very happy.

Photo: Red Leaf © Karen Cummings

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  • MeanMeosh

    Charlie – you seem to mock the airlines for going green because it increases their profits, but does it really matter what the motivation is as long as the end result is a good one? That’s like dismissing commuters who ride the bus or train because they say it saves them money on gas, instead of in their zeal to combat “global warming”. You got the car off the road, which should be the important thing, not the person’s motivation for doing so.

  • Charles Leocha

    I didn’t mean to mock the airlines at all. This is the perfect match up of environmental protection with the profit motive. Aviation is fairly unique in this situation and the airlines have been at the cutting edge of reducing their carbon footprint. I added (win-win) to the headline to underscore that this is a good situation — good for the environment and good for the airlines.

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