Fighting Climate Change While Flying

NBCLX storyteller Clark Fouraker had the opportunity to ride on the first commercial flight with passengers to use 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) for one of the aircraft’s two engines.

Let’s face it. Flying usually sucks. Air travel is also contributing to climate change in a pretty significant way. And that sucks for us and the planet. But what if it didn’t? I could tell the flight I was on was a bit different. First, the flight attendants were using real glassware in coach. And second, their boss, United CEO Scott Kirby was one of the passengers.

The glassware was marking an historic occasion: the use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) by a modern jumbo jet. Sure, it was only fueling the right engine, but that wasn’t the point. It was an experimental flight from Chicago to Washington, D.C., by United, designed to show that airlines can do a better job at reducing the harmful emissions from their planes. Never before had an airplane carrying passengers had an engine powered with 100% SAF.

There were no official paying customers on this flight. The cabin was filled with a select roster of industry executives and government officials. They seemed really excited about what this flight — and its fuel — represented. The entire plane cheered when we took off.

As the airline industry grapples with how their aircraft are impacting to the environment, SAFs could be part of a transition to more environmentally friendly air travel. My seatmates knew a lot more about this stuff that me, so I asked them what makes SAFs special. I learned that this fuel is made from agricultural and forest feedstocks as opposed to oil.

As far as the actual flight, it felt normal. If you didn’t know what fuel was being used, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference from a traditional flight. Except that the captain turned off the seatbelt sign so Kirby and other United executives could hob nob in the middle of the isle. Kirby had recently returned from COP-26 where he acknowledged his industry’s heavy carbon footprint.

“I hate greenwashing and hate marketing as the way to address climate change. To me, this is a real problem, and we’re just trying to do the right thing. I often say, and I mean it, that I don’t want this to be a marketing advantage for United,” Kirby told me on the plane. “I am personally passionate about climate change. I have seven kids, and I genuinely want to leave a better world for them.”

You may be wondering why only one engine on this United flight was powered with SAF. Currently, that’s the maximum amount regulations allow per flight. Since our need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is immediate, you may also be wondering why at least one engine isn’t sustainably fueled more often. The short answer, which is common knowledge on this flight, is that the production of SAFs couldn’t keep up with that demand.

“The number one focus we have in the near to medium term is helping to build this industry so that we have enough supply so more and more of our airplanes, and more of other airline’s airplanes, can actually fly on sustainable aviation fuel,” Kirby said.

Of course, a more climate friendly aviation industry is more complicated than simply changing the type of fuel we use in planes. To be clear, SAFs still emit carbon, just less than traditional fuels. And most experts agree that in the long term, the aircraft itself will have to evolve as new technology comes online.

There are multiple startups working to build planes powered by batteries. That approach holds promise for shorter regional hops under 250 miles or even for air taxis within larger cities. U.S. carriers like United and American Airlines have already invested in some of these companies, hoping to be greener and grab market share at the same time.

However, based on today’s technology, rechargeable batteries are just too heavy and not powerful enough for a regular-sized passenger plane. Airbus is considering a hydrogen powered jet but says it will take until 2025 for them to know if the project is even viable. If it is, it will take another decade to build the plane, they say.

The long-term trajectory of actual plane innovation brings us back to SAFs and my listening to the aviation experts sitting around me. Once the aisle was clear of the drink cart, the plane became a meeting of the minds 35,000 feet in the sky. They clap again when we land because the passengers on this United flight generally consider SAFs as one of the best (albeit not perfect) near-term attempts to improve commercial aviation’s environmental impact.

“They learn to fill their planes better. They also retire older, less efficient planes and bring new planes in. And all of that sort of adds up to about a 2% improvement per year,” said Dan Rutherford with the International Council on Clean Transportation. “The trick is, to date, traffic has been increasing by 4 to 5%, and so you’re actually outstripping the fuel efficiency gains by the traffic growth.”

You won’t be hopping on a SAF flight anytime soon, however. But there are things you can do to reduce your environmental footprint when you travel. Rutherford says do your research to pick a flight on a newer, normal plane, then sit in economy and fly direct. If you do, he says your flight could be 30 to 40% less carbon intensive.

“A lot of airlines and manufacturers are starting to make real investments in technology, and the policymakers are starting to realize that as we decarbonize the power sector and get more electric cars on the road, all of those sources of greenhouse gas emissions go down, and aviation is just going up, up, up, up,” Rutherford said.

“I’m really optimistic right now, and I haven’t always been able to say that. In the past, you’d have a peak of interest, and then it would disappear, and I just don’t see that happening. I think this is going to be sustained interest in a sustained challenge. And I think we will rise to the occasion, just maybe not as quickly as some people would like.”