One of the first things that any business attempting to cut its carbon emissions typically tends to address is their business travel for the obvious reason that your board gets to look green-thinking even if that was not the primary intention. Because, let’s face it, cutting business travel first and foremost saves money; the secondary consideration is environmental. Yes, I’m feeling cynical today.
I got to thinking about the whole issue of sustainability and aviation when I saw an alert about the corporate sustainability program at United Airlines, which is the biggest U.S. airline in terms of passengers carried. I received that alert just one day after I received a report covering the seemingly mutually exclusive topic of sustainable growth of civil aviation. (Yes, cynicism rises again.) More seriously, this particular report offers ideas for getting to the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) that has been proposed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). More on that in a moment.
First, the United corporate social responsibility report. There are a couple of firsts worth noting, in terms of how the airline is leaning on technology to help with its sustainability efforts:
- The carrier was the first in the United States to sign on to the United Nations Global Compact, which reflects a public commit to certain human rights, environmental, labor and anti-corruption laws.
- It was the first to switch its fleet to synthetic fuel
- It was the first to operate a “Green Corridor” demo flight, one using new flight-planning technologies to help optimize routes and save fuel.
- Speaking of fuel, United improved its fuel efficiency by 32 percent between 1990 and 2009, when measured in gallons per revenue ton mile
- On the ground, the airline has increased the number of electric and alternative-fuel vehicles that it uses by 15 percent in the past 12 to 18 months
So, now seems like a good time to pause and point out that the U.S. airline industry, historically speaking, hasn’t had such a great economic history. According to figures cited in the United report, the industry as a whole has lost nearly $60 billion over the past 10 years, and about $28 billion in just the last two years. Sustainability efforts are just one of the pillars toward helping reverse this trend.
Which brings me to the report on the industry as a whole, “Civil Aviation in the 21st Century, Meeting Capacity and Environmental Challenges.”
According to the report, there are eight big ways that the U.S. civil aviation can move toward sustainability. Many of them involving getting on board with NextGen, which is essentially an overhaul of the nation’s radar based control system to embrace global positioning satellite (GPS). The old system is the annoying one that guides the air traffic control to tell your flight crew in Los Angeles to keep your flight on the ground because of bad weather in New Jersey while a simple call to your spouse (on your mobile) confirms that it is bright and sunny at your destination.
Here are some of the report’s recommendations for how the airline industry can move forward, even though there aren’t a lot of carriers with oodles of excess cash to invest:
- Use the FAA’s “cash for carbon” grants and loan program to invest in NextGen equipment, in exchange for environment commitments or carbon-neutral growth plans
- Use the Airport Improvement Program, which helps provide grants for noise mitigation projects, to integrate NextGen technology approaches
- Enlist third parties who can help design and install the navigation procedures associated with the new system
- And, get technology manufacturers and the government to work more closely on technologies such as aircraft engines, airframe designs and sustainable alternatives to jet fuel–all of which can help toward carbon-neutral growth.
The reason it is important to address this is because, quite frankly, even though travel has waned in the recession, volume will grow again. The report’s authors write: “Even in mature markets like the United States and Europe, moderate but consistent growth in air travel project demand is projected. These markets also have the persistent need to recapitalize aging fleets with newer, more fuel-efficient aircraft, generating replacement demand on top of growth for fleet expansion.”
Frankly, the industry needs to get a move on, or it faces more challenges, such as the gauntlet that the United Kingdom threw down earlier this year when it told Heathrow Airport it couldn’t build more runways. Clean airspace should be the goal, but not at the expense of economic growth.