For fuel-guzzling airlines, going green is no easy task

Source: By Lauren Zumbach, Minneapolis Star Tribune • Posted: Monday, June 24, 2019

The flight out of O’Hare International Airport was on a Boeing 737 powered by a fuel mixture that was 30% biofuel and got about 81.4 miles per gallon per passenger, 16 mpg more than United’s fleetwide average.

The usual packaged treats and for-sale snack boxes were replaced with free meals emphasizing relatively sustainable options. No beef was served; instead there were quinoa and kale wraps served on plates made from sugar cane, and hot beverage cups made from recycled paper.

The flight generated just 21.5 pounds of trash — all brought onboard by the 161 passengers — compared with the 65 pounds generated on an average flight, said United spokesman Charles Hobart.

United purchased 40 metric tons of carbon offsets to balance out the greenhouse gas emissions it wasn’t able to eliminate from the flight, including those from producing and burning jet fuel.

The airline said it was a chance to fly the greenest possible flight, testing several sustainability initiatives in combination. But it’s going to take a lot more to make a typical commercial flight truly green. The aviation industry has set a goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions in half from 2005 levels by 2050, and airlines are taking a number of steps to meet that goal.

For airlines, the move to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint is not just about sustainability. Better fuel efficiency also reduces fuel costs. The aviation industry said it accounts for just 2% of global carbon emissions, and that it is making progress on reducing its footprint. But unless improvements in efficiency can keep up with the industry’s growth, that number will rise, said Eric Masanet, associate engineering professor at Northwestern University.

The biggest hurdle airlines are encountering in their effort to be more green is the lack of widely available alternatives to emissions-generating jet fuel. Companies are working on developing electric planes, but it will be years before they are ready for commercial flights. That puts the focus on biofuels, which generate fewer emissions than traditional jet fuel until changes in aircraft design improve aerodynamics and incorporate lightweight materials, experts said.

Zumbach writes for the Chicago Tribune.