Airlines have been trying out various means of reducing their environmental impact in recent years – whether by pledging to reduce waste, setting up carbon offsetting schemes, or investing in more sustainable fuels.
Now, United says it is the first to combine all three on a commercial flight.
Yesterday it took a Boeing 737-900 from its Chicago O’Hare hub to Los Angeles using a 30/70 blend of sustainable jet fuel made from agricultural waste, supplied by Boston-based World Energy.
Pilots used single-engine taxi procedures instead of both engines to reduce fuel burn on the runway, and used a continuous descent approach instead of a stair-step approach, which also saves fuel.
In economy, traditional snacks were swapped for a plated service featuring compostable cutlery, including a recyclable hot drink cup. Over in the premium cabin, serviceware and plastic lids were swapped for beeswax food wrappers.
The airline has already replaced its stirring sticks and cocktail picks with a product made of 100 per cent bamboo.
On yesterday’s flight, United offset the remainder of emissions not offset by the biofuel – which it says provides a 60 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions versus traditional fuel – with credits in Conservation International.
Efforts to increase the eco-credentials of airlines have not come without criticism.
Some believe carbon offsetting schemes are simply a way to excuse increasing pollution levels, with the schemes themselves lacking an industry-wide regulator to assess their impact.
Biofuels are also being widely touted as a way for airlines to reduce their carbon footprint. While the fuel still releases emissions, the source of the fuel should ‘close the loop’ by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
They can be obtained through plant oils, municipal waste, industrial off-gases and other sources and processed in various ways. They can then fill current aircraft engines as normal fuel would, currently up to a 50 per cent blend.
There are still relatively few suppliers, and the cost of biofuel is around three times higher than regular fuel.
As that comes down through economies of scale, environmental activists have warned that sourcing such fuels could lead to land grabs and forest clearing.
Nonetheless, airlines see potential in the field as public consciousness around the impact of aviation grows.
United has agreed to purchase 10 million gallons of biofuel from World Energy over the next two years, while KLM has placed a ten-year order with the Netherlands’ SkyNRG, and Virgin Atlantic is working with LanzaTech to build a large-scale alcohol to jet facility in the UK.
Read more about alternative jet fuels and other ways of making aviation more sustainable in the July/August issue of Business Traveller.