Editor’s note: This article first published in the June 2023 Special Edition of Beyond the Meeting Room, ALHI’s printed magazine, a luxury lifestyle publication focused on sharing compelling, inspirational and educational stories from beyond the four walls of a meeting room.

In April 2022, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report indicating that “harmful carbon emissions from 2010 to 2019 have never been higher in human history.”

Calling the findings “a file of shame,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the world is “on a fast track to climate disaster” as “high-emitting governments and corporations are not just turning a blind eye; they are adding fuel to the flames.”

Count the global civic aviation industry as a leader in heeding Guterres’ call for turning “climate promises and plans into reality and action, now.”

Against the grain of cost pressures and other economic headwinds, the industry has demonstrably stayed in front of this dire “now or never” scenario for over a decade as it advances and broadens a holistic sustainability strategy for the future.

Early Adopters

In 2009, six years before the Paris Agreement of 2015 called for all industries, companies and countries to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the industry jetted ahead by endorsing three climate goals. These comprised the short-term efficiency improvement goal of 1.5% per year; capping net CO2 emissions through carbon-neutral growth from 2020; and halving net CO2 emissions by 2050 as compared with 2005 levels. 

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents some 300 airlines, or 83% of total worldwide air traffic, subsequently set forth a comprehensive guiding four-pillar strategy to unite industry action on a common platform.

The technology pillar is focused on developing more efficient aircraft, engines and fuels. Operational changes include lighter-weight seats and cabin equipment, single-engine taxiing and improving traffic flow management to reduce idling and holding patterns. Infrastructure enhancements target the streamlining of airport layouts and aircraft navigation and routing.

The fourth pillar covers financial incentives such as taxation, emissions trading and carbon-offset programs. In 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a specialized agency of the U.N., established a global market-based mechanism known as CORSIA, or Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, which goes into effect in 2024. In 2018, the ICAO adopted a set of international standards and recommended practices for CORSIA. These included emissions monitoring, reporting and verification; carbon offsetting requirements; and transitioning to sustainable aviation fuels, or SAFs.

“With aviation being a hard-to-decarbonize industry, none of us can do this alone.”

Pam Fletcher, Chief Sustainability Officer, Delta


Making an Impact

These collective efforts produced results from the outset. In 2010, IATA introduced its experimental iFlex program, which optimized long-haul flight routes based on wind conditions. Implemented on a Delta Air Lines route between Johannesburg and Atlanta, the test concept saved an average of eight minutes of flying time, equating to 238 gallons of fuel and 3.2 tons of CO2. Annualized for two daily flights, this saved about 100 flight hours and 760 tons of fuel while avoiding 2,370 tons of emitted CO2.

Another early milestone saw the ASTM International Committee on Petroleum Products and Lubricants approve sustainable biofuels, which can reduce emissions by up to 80%. In 2016, United became the first airline in the world to use SAFs on a continuous basis. Today, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue and Southwest are among other major carriers that regularly use biofuels.

By 2019, according to an ICAO report that year, the industry had surpassed its short-term efficiency goal with an improvement of 17.3% following the introduction of new aircraft technologies, more efficient operations and infrastructure improvements.

In 2021, IATA approved a resolution for the global air transport industry to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 in alignment with the Paris Agreement goal for global warming not to exceed 1.5°C.

Also in 2021, 20 airline members of the World Economic Forum’s Target True Zero initiative, including Air New Zealand, Alaska Airlines and Icelandair, pledged to utilize new technologies such as electric, hydrogen and hybrid aircraft to minimize climate impact.

Encouraging Innovation

Complementing these coordinated initiatives, industry sustainability leaders include Boeing, which is pursuing its own four-pillar decarbonization strategy, and Delta.

From working with Airbus to build the world’s first hydrogen-powered airplane and electrifying all ground operations to shedding nearly 5 million pounds of single-use plastic annually, Delta has confidently and optimistically committed more than $1 billion to eliminating its carbon footprint and promoting a sustainable future for all.

Dedicated to embedding sustainability enterprisewide and “optimizing flying operations and partnering to accelerate clean fuel availability and revolutionary aircraft” in its own 2050 sustainability journey, Delta is accelerating the decarbonization timetable for the entire industry with innovations like the Delta Sustainable Skies Lab.

Announced in January 2023, the lab combines internally driven improvements and efficiencies in flight, technical, in-flight, fleet and customer operations and services with a focus on attracting like-minded innovation partners.

“With aviation being a hard-to-decarbonize industry, none of us can do this alone,” said Pam Fletcher, Delta’s Chief Sustainability Officer, in a company release. “We’re rolling out the welcome mat for the next generation of doers and disruptors of choice to take advantage of Delta’s global resources to accelerate our path to decarbonization and a fully sustainable travel experience.”

Along with Airbus, current collaborations include:

Testing Aero Design Labs’ novel drag-reduction technology.

Establishing a new SAF supply stream with DG Fuels LLC.

Creating a sustainable home-to-airport transportation service for customers with Joby Aviation.

Partnering with MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics to eliminate persistent heat-trapping contrails, or condensation trails, which are one of aviation’s largest environmental impacts.

Set to open in phases, the Engagement and Ideation Studio is a complex at Delta’s Atlanta headquarters that will showcase these evolving sustainability efforts and serve as a space for stakeholders to meet, collaborate and share ideas.

“While the journey to decarbonizing aviation is uncharted, we know it will take short-, medium- and long-term solutions to reach our net-zero goal,” Fletcher said. “That’s why this work is both exciting and critical—it has the potential to make a major impact on our environmental footprint within just a few years.”