delta a350

Airlines aren’t the world’s largest emitters. No, aviation as a whole only accounts for circa 3% of global emissions, but that doesn’t excuse it, nor does it make it better.

It’s just a small point worth noting, since many like to quickly stick the finger at travel and aviation, while driving a car made in a factory which is responsible for circa 30% of global emissions, which are at least 10x worse, or buying fast fashion which adds 10% of the global greenhouse emissions totals. Anyway.

Eager to shift that paradigm, airlines are boasting about sustainability efforts. It’s all admirable, as long as it’s not greenwashing in the name of excess profit at the expense of customer experience, but it’s been silo’d.

If airlines really care about sustainability, shouldn’t efforts be about sharing, rather than just a “look at me” marathon? In what I’d easily consider the best effort yet, the SkySteam alliance has launched a challenge which does just that.

It’s an open source competition others can learn from.

delta a350

SkyTeam Sustainability Challenge

Rather than just say “look at me”, SkyTeam created the Sustainable Flight Challenge which turns any look at me, into look what “we” can do.

SkyTeam member airlines, including Delta, Air France, KLM, China Airlines, Korean and more, are competing to win the title of most sustainable flight.

The airlines are trialling different sustainability initiatives on select flights to see just how far emissions, waste and other excess can be curbed, while still delivering a top tier flying experience.

What’s cool, is that the learning is being shared with each flight, enabling other airlines, SkyTeam or not, to do better. There’s a lot that can be better. Air France was able to cut emissions in half, on its two submissions for the challenge, using a clever variety of measures, including things passengers won’t even feel.

Aircraft, Fuel And Trajectories

Newer, modern aircraft such as the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 are more fuel efficient than their predecessors, which instantly helps. Air France also used a higher blend of “SAF”, sustainable aviation fuel to power these flights, which also helps curb impact.

The flights collaborated with air traffic control to offer trajectories for take off and approach which minimized drag and fuel burn, therefore also becoming more friendly to the environment. Pilots taxied to the runway on one engine, which also resulted in significant fuel savings.

On the ground, electric tows, baggage carts and data driven loading of cargo can also help to reduce emissions across all flights, and the bi-products of flight.

a blue and white airplane flying in the sky

On Board: Single Use Plastics, Composting

There’s a fine balance to reducing weight and eliminating waste, and cutting in on customer satisfaction. With hope, the SkyTeam challenge will find that balance.

Delta, for one, is using recycled materials to create pillows and blankets for its cabins. Without taking things away from customers, as many have done, Delta is also trying to do more with what happens to anything unconsumed during flight.

For its competition contributions, Delta started composting meals from the flight and eliminated as many single use plastics as possible, finding other ways to maintain any required hygiene standards.

Points Up For Grabs?

Waste is a two way street, when it comes to airlines. I, for one, am probably very guilty. I try to eat quality meals on the ground prior to most flights, and therefore a meal is almost certainly wasted because of me.

Of course, I have no option prior to flight to tick a box to say that I won’t be eating, so I can’t beat myself up too much. China Airlines offered loyalty program members points for helping to make flights more efficient. Travelers were able to earn points for pre-order meals, self serve check in use and others.

Etihad was among the first to offer points and perks for sustainable actions, and as a points hungry traveler, the more the merrier.

A Challenge Which Might Change Aviation

Like I said, any sustainability effort from an airline which doesn’t hinder the customer experience is admirable. But when it’s just a look at me, one off type thing, there’s a lot left on the table. This SkyTeam challenge changes that.

All airlines can now look in, see the results and hear from the challenge panel about the key factors in the challenge. Other airlines can replicate the successes and push efforts even further.

If airlines get this right, that 3% of global emissions may drop, and that would be a fantastic result.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. I’d argue the best airline sustainability thing yet – in net present value terms, having the potential to make a true difference – is United’s investment in direct carbon capture.

    1. It’s a good argument! I guess as the wholistic closed loop of carbon goes, that’s the most important. Combine the two, and aviation is doing well.

    2. You’re right but, the less carbon the birds emit, the less to be captured and sequestered. The 2020 cry of the environmental community rings true here: Leave It In The Ground!

  2. This video has 2 points of cultural importance to me, as some who offsets all of his travel, air, food consumption and ground transportation: 1) A corporate video which paraphrases Proverbs 27:17? Refreshing! 2) Someone needs to redit this video to remove all references to Aeroflot!

  3. I thought Qantas and getting customers to earn a green tier is months ago. Far ahead of this

    1. I think the Qantas (and Etihad) initiatives for customer actions are great. Wonderful in fact. But this takes the stakes up a notch with shared learning for flying itself. Different segments, both important.

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