Beyond the pure wonder of it, air travel shatters barriers that once seemed insurmountable. It brings together people and cultures from the furthest corners of the world, broadening our collective experiences and building understanding. At Delta, we see travel as a noble force for good – and the miracle of flight is helping us to better understand the far-reaching impacts of climate change.
Aviation continues to make technological advancements, yet the need for jet propulsion and fossil fuels makes it among the most challenging sectors to decarbonize. The very core of our business – flying – accounts for 98% of an airline’s carbon footprint.
This is the challenge that inspired my decision earlier this year to join Delta as Chief Sustainability Officer. Working with the Delta Team to create a sustainable future offers a compelling challenge and an opportunity to lead meaningful change. The solutions we develop will help define the next century of air travel.
In my years helping build a zero-emissions future for the auto industry, I experienced first-hand that big challenges, especially those with big impact, inspire innovation and technical advancement while bringing out the best in people. Dramatic climate change demands all stakeholders come to the table with a dedication and sense of urgency to listen and act. Airlines, manufacturers, governments, consumers and yet-to-be-discovered contributors, alike, need to work together to advance climate-friendly programs and services – all while elevating the overall travel experience.
In March 2020, Delta set a bold vision and began its journey toward carbon neutrality with the best tool available at the time: high-quality carbon offsets. Today, our vision of the path forward is much wider and centered on a long-term strategy of decarbonization. As we reshape the fundamentals of aviation, we are as dedicated to making immediate progress as we are to investing wisely in disruptive solutions. A portfolio of short-, medium- and long-term actions across the industry are essential to achieving net zero aviation.
LONG-TERM: DRIVING INNOVATION FOR NET ZERO FUTURE OF FLIGHT
What will an aircraft’s propulsion system or airframe look like in 2050? Delta continues to encourage and incentivize revolutionary and disruptive aircraft technologies with our supply base and creatives outside the industry, forging an ecosystem to catalyze innovation. We’ve partnered with Airbus to study hydrogen-powered aircraft along with the ecosystem required at airports and beyond to potentially reduce aviation emissions exponentially. We’re optimistic about early-stage companies pushing the boundaries with futurist thinking on aircraft, propulsion and more, and look forward to fostering collaboration with the industry, academia, and start-ups to accelerate the sustainable future of flight.
MEDIUM-TERM: SCALING PROVEN NEW TECH QUICKLY
In the mid-term, sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) are the most impactful solution. Made from renewable plant-based and waste resources, SAF can be used in existing aircraft engines – which is incredible. They are produced with a fraction of the lifecycle carbon footprint compared to traditional jet fuel. But it’s also an emerging technology not currently produced at scale, which means it’s largely inaccessible and about three-to-five times the cost of traditional jet fuel.
The auto industry’s all-electric roadmap offers insights into SAF. Early electric cars were cost prohibitive and the ecosystem to support mass commercialization simply didn’t exist. Government prioritization and infrastructure support along with industry investment has unlocked a tidal wave of innovation that is enabling more affordable electric cars to be produced at scale for the mass market. We have the same opportunity with SAF to accelerate its viability to become as economical and widely available as traditional jet fuel.
Delta has forged partnerships with federal and state governments, early-stage SAF developers and our jet fuel supply chain to help spark this nascent industry. In addition, improving operational efficiency through industry collaboration with air traffic control agencies and supporting new aerospace research will be critical to our success.
SHORT-TERM: CHANGES TO WHAT WE CONTROL
Today, Delta is propelling the industry forward. We’ve proven the infrastructure exists to make SAF accessible to every major airport on the East Coast by leveraging our partnership with Colonial Pipeline. We’re funding top minds to accelerate new innovations through our pension fund’s co-investment with TPG Rise Climate Fund. We are pushing the industry to look holistically at the impact of aviation beyond jet fuel, including a goal of electrifying 50 percent of our ground fleet by 2025 with five of our top hubs fully electric in the next three years. And we’re eliminating nearly 5 million pounds of single-use plastics onboard this year alone and offering customers compostable food service items as new options come to market.
Reducing our carbon footprint is good for our business, which is why for the past decade, Delta’s Carbon Council has had the goal of reinventing longstanding operating procedures to reduce fuel consumption. In 2022 alone, we are expected to have reduced fuel consumption by over 10 million gallons through operations and fleet modifications including reducing aircraft weight, modifying landing approaches, optimizing flight speed and more. This improvement is on top of ongoing multi-billion-dollar investments to replace and modify aircraft with more efficient technology, resulting in our fastest rate of fuel efficiency improvements over the past three years. This includes our recent order of Boeing 737-10 aircraft which is intended to improve fuel efficiency by 25% over the aircraft they will replace.
In my short time at Delta, it is clear that “Keep Climbing” is a way of life – from senior leaders to front-line teams – in pursuit of continuous improvement and big ideas that will elevate the next 100 years of aviation. We believe in the unmatched power of human connections that flight allows, enabling us to see the world and help to save it at the same time. I’m excited about the journey of learning, growing, and making meaningful change ahead. Focusing on progress – not perfection, will define our path.