The opportunity for leadership from global aviation will become increasingly important as we seek to mitigate climate change. The aviation sector currently contributes 5% of global anthroprogenic ghg emissions, and that number is expected to increase. In this piece, we hear from Delta Air Lines’ Christine Boucher, Managing Director –Global Environment, Sustainability and Compliance, on how they are combining carbon offsetting with other innovation to begin to find a pathway to a lower carbon world. Tim Nixon, Managing Editor, Sustainability.
Tim: Why is sustainability important to Delta?
Christine Boucher: Delta’s Rules of the Road guide every business decision we make and call for us to minimize our impact on the environment. At the same time, our code of ethics requires us to be a responsible global citizen. While this guidance is fundamental, we also hear from our corporate customers and investors regularly about what we’re doing in this space. All of this contributed to Delta’s decision to become the only airline to voluntarily cap our emissions at 2012 levels ahead of the ICAO CORSIA implementation that will cap international emissions at 2019/2020 levels. It’s also why Delta employees this year started an employee-led business resource group called Green Up to focus on ways Delta can make a difference in the environmental sustainability space. These are truly passionate people who produce incredibly creative ideas like how we can continue to push innovative ways to upcycle our frontline uniforms and find solutions to reduce waste on our corporate campuses.
Tim: Is it becoming more important as a driver of business opportunity?
Christine: We have always approached sustainability holistically in the sense that it’s not just about the environment – we need to be sustainable in all areas of our business for the long term. Implementing environmental sustainability programs cannot be done at the expense of our business objectives, community engagements or vice versa. With this in mind, we’ve developed an environmental program that actually helps the airline’s financial goals of growth and profitability through innovative business practices that minimize the environmental impacts of our operations while promoting the health, welfare and productivity in the communities where our employees and customers live and work.
The result has been that stakeholders, including investors, customers, employees and communities can all feel good about the travel choices they’re making with Delta. A prime example are the two new partnerships we launched this year with Duke University and the Seattle Seahawks. Both wanted to offset all of their travel on Delta while benefiting their local communities. We also were the first U.S. airline to recycle waste from our aircraft and have recycled more than 3 million pounds of aluminum from on-board waste – equivalent to 22 Boeing 747s – over the past 10 years. The funds from that program and recycling oil in Technical Operations have been used to construct nine of the 253 homes we’ve built with Habitat for Humanity.
Tim: What are the one or two areas where you can make the most positive impact on your business and more broadly?
Christine: With fuel burn accounting for more than 98 percent of Delta’s total emissions and fuel being our second-largest cost, reducing our carbon footprint has the greatest impact on our overall sustainability strategy. That doesn’t mean we aren’t looking at other areas to become more efficient. Our Technical Operations division uses a significant amount of water in its work to maintain our fleet so how we manage our waste water matters, and adds up. Last year we partnered with the Atlanta airport on a campaign that our customers and employees can take part in to conserve and restore water. We’ve also been able to reduce our hazardous waste by 27 percent over the past year alone, which is good for the environment and reduces costs associated with that aspect of the business. And the more we engage employees and customers in the communities where they work and live, the more positive our impact. The funds raised by our recycling program to build Habitat homes and our partnerships with Duke University and the Seattle Seahawks are prime examples.
Tim: How are you achieving that impact?
Christine: The replacement of 20 percent of our mainline narrowbody fleet over the next five years with quieter, more fuel-efficient A321s, Bombardier CS100s and Boeing 737-900ERs will build on the work we’ve been doing for years with offsets and improving fuel efficiency. We’ve also switched more than 13.5 percent of our ground equipment fleet to electronic motors and reduced the overall weight of the aircraft through improved catering efficiencies, installing winglets on our Boeing 737-900ERs to make them our most efficient aircraft and installing carbon brakes on some of our fleet to reduce weight on aircraft by 700 pounds.
Since 2013, Delta has voluntarily purchased about $8 million in carbon offsets – more than $2.5 million in offsets in 2017, alone – and our goal of achieving a 2 percent improvement in fuel efficiency in 2018 aligns with the IATA goal for airlines of improving fuel efficiency by 1.5 percent year-over-year. Offsets not only account for our emissions, but have greater social impacts like empowering farmers to reverse the devastating effects of deforestation, drought and famine with tree plantings that become “cash crops” thanks to their carbon credits and become part of a solution to impact global poverty.
We’ve also gotten creative in developing a proprietary flight weather viewer app for our pilots that allows them to better predict smooth air and avoid weather, burning less fuel. The impact is bolstered when crews do simple things like taxi under the power of a single engine or ask customers to pull the shades down in the cabin during summer months to keep it cooler so auxiliary power isn’t needed as much.
Every bit counts and the sustainability industry is taking notice. In 2016 Delta saved over 9 million gallons of fuel resulting in reducing total emissions by 90,000 metric tons and the airline was again named as the to the Dow Jones Sustainability Index North America for the seventh consecutive year.
Delta’s community outreach commitment hit a new high in 2016 when we committed 1 percent of net profits to support community engagement efforts.
Tim: How are you measuring that impact?
Christine: Delta is voluntarily measuring our absolute emissions and capping them at 2012 levels, but part of that growth is directly due to growing the business and flying more. Our efficiency metric takes the growth into account, and in 2017 our fuel efficiency improved by 2.2 percent compared to the year before. In addition to our focus on reducing aircraft emissions, we are also continuing to electrify our ground equipment fleet and implementing energy-savings initiatives at our ground facilities.
Tim: How can Delta begin to lower its total GHG emissions over time instead of holding steady with offsets?
Christine: While we are doing a lot to lower our overall greenhouse gas emissions, more can always be done. We are committed to investing in our fleet and reducing fuel burn through a variety of tactics across the business. We are also keeping an eye on the biofuels market in the event it reaches the tipping point of being both scalable and economically sustainable for global airlines that consume hundreds of millions of gallons of fuel a year.
Tim: Looking out 10 years, what types of innovations from sustainability will help to drive new benefits to your business?
Christine: It’s hard to know what the sustainability landscape will be in 10 years, but Delta’s innovative approach to business extends to all of our sustainability partnerships like our new one with the Georgia Tech Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business so we can evaluate which of the latest sustainability innovations can drive value for the business. We are also engaged with sustainability experts inside and outside the airline industry to stay abreast of evolving trends, technological advancements and community needs to make sure we remain proactive sustainability leaders.