Making aviation more sustainable: a conversation with Amelia DeLuca
Flightpath host Joel Makower recently spoke with Amelia DeLuca, Vice President of Sustainability at Delta Air Lines, to discuss how to make aviation more sustainable. Part One of their conversation examines why Delta put sustainability at the heart of its strategy and what the airline envisions for the future.
Read on for excerpts from their informative sit-down. Please note this transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Joel Makower: I'm Joel Makower. We're talking about what will it take to make aviation sustainable with Amelia DeLuca, Vice President of Sustainability at Delta Air Lines. Amelia, let's start with your remit at Delta. Talk a little bit about what you do there.
Amelia DeLuca: The main focus of my purview is on environmental sustainability, and what that essentially means is that we are running a marathon in our industry. We are a hard-to-decarbonise industry, meaning we are one of the last ones that will get to net-zero [carbon emissions] because of some of the challenges that we'll discuss. My job is essentially being mindful of what are we doing today, and how can we minimise our footprint today, while also looking out into the future and making sure that not only do we have the right commitments, but we have the plan to get there, from policies to coalitions, to how we bring our customers along with us. It's a really exciting journey.
Our greenhouse-gas emissions are predominantly driven by jet fuel. And so, when we think about sustainability at the airline, consumers will often think about the products that they see on board, which is an important part of my job. But, at the end of the day, we're laser-focused on the 98 percent of the emissions that come from jet fuel. And when we think about that, that is really where the challenge lies for our industry.
JM: A lot of people see sustainability as this nice-to-do bolt-on to the real business at hand. But it sounds like Delta's really baking sustainability into its strategy. Tell me why that is.
AD: I think the days are gone where this can be led because of an altruistic approach. Like, "I feel like I should do this because it'll be good." Or, "I feel like maybe I should do this because I'd like to give back." The criticality of this is becoming more heightened by the day. Let's start with investors and end with my favorite part, which is employees.
Investors are looking at companies and saying, "You have a significant risk because of the climate transition that's in front of you. I want to know, in a transparent way, what is that risk? How much quantifiably is that going to impact your business? What is your plan for it?" Investors are saying, "I don't know where to invest anymore because I don't know who's going to make it or not make it through this transition."
Then there's the second part, which is that Delta is a brand that our consumers love, but it's also a brand that attracts great talent because we are a great employer. We've always taken care of our employees. You never saw that more than during the pandemic. Coming out of the pandemic, as we're starting to rebuild our workforce and hiring new people, we've got that next generation coming that cares about the environment. Not to mention that everyone else has just been through this profound impact from a pandemic that has caused everyone to step back and say, "What am I doing with my life? And what do I really care about?"
All roads lead to climate. I hear people from all ages, all levels, all positions, all backgrounds connect to this often in different ways. The younger generation says, "This is critical and I'm anxious because I'm afraid I don't have a future." To people who have kids saying, "My kids are asking me how I'm influencing this and if my responsibility within my business is for good or for bad." You've got this kind of wonderful cycle, and I really do mean it's wonderful, of people keeping us all in check, and saying that this better be one of your top pillars at the company.
JM: Delta has been at the forefront of commitments to reduce greenhouse gas -- I think the first commercial airline to commit to being carbon-neutral. What's driving that for Delta?
AD: It's something that's been part of our DNA for quite some time. If you really step back, the airline industry, but in particular Delta, is an industry that's built upon trust, trust with our consumers, and purpose, because we aren't just flying airplanes, we connect people to people, people to places, people to new opportunities. And so there's a responsibility that comes with what we do every day. As we started to, as a society, note the impact that our industry was having, the light went off in our head saying, "Well actually now we also have an obligation to protect our planet." Stepping back, in 2012 we were the first and only airline to voluntarily cap our emissions at 2012 levels. That is significantly in front of anything else that's happening right now.
Then in March of 2020, we went one step further and committed to carbon neutrality. What that essentially was doing was acknowledging that we don't have the perfect solution today. We're not an industry that's going to get to net-zero at 2030, but acknowledging that we can still have an impact globally both within what we do every day –our own flying -- by really managing and optimising our emissions, but also looking further into the places that we fly and acknowledging that climate change obviously extends well beyond aviation.
JM: So, how's it going? Talk a little bit about where you are on that roadmap.
AD: It's been great. It's actually been really interesting. I get asked a lot, how did the pandemic impact your commitment to carbon neutrality? On the one hand, that’s very challenging as an airline to be able to have that commitment in the midst of focusing on avoiding layoffs, and taking care of our customers, and our crews, and trying to make sure we were financially sustainable. But on the other hand, we had a much smaller travel footprint last year. Carbon neutrality is that day-to-day management of the fuel efficiency that we're flying, as well as playing in the carbon offset space. It really allowed us during the pandemic to step back and pause and say, "What are we going to do? What are the structures we need to set up internally and externally to be successful?" And then to really dive deep into the carbon offsets market because that's a core part of the work that we're doing today with carbon neutrality.
The other benefit from the pandemic, if you think back to the scenes from the early days, was the airplanes that were parked. One benefit within our own greenhouse-gas emissions footprint was that we were actually able to accelerate our fleet retirement plan. We retired 200 jets last year, and every new jet that we bring online has anywhere between 20 to 25 percent improved fuel efficiency, just like your car. You know when you go buy a car, you're constantly looking at that miles per gallon. We measure our success as an airline on essentially how efficient we're able to fly. The pandemic actually aided and accelerated a lot of that work.
JM: As we know, offsets are a way to eliminate unavoidable emissions. But 98 percent, as you said, of your emissions come from burning jet fuel. So where does fuel fit into this? What's the plan to look at reducing the fuel, use alternative fuels, and to cut into that 98 percent?
AD: When I talk about the story of jet fuel, it's a two-part story, essentially. It's now until 2035, and then it's 2035 and beyond. Which is why, as an airline, we have what's called a Science Based Target at 2035, which is essentially a carbon-intensity target. Or, in our case, because all of our carbon comes from fuel, a fuel-efficiency target at 2035. We've recently signed onto that, and committed to the Science Based Targets, which is a really ambitious goal to managing our fuel efficiency.
When we look at our path to that Science Based Target, there's really three levers that we have today. One I talked about, fleet renewals. We have the best fleet team in the industry. We have the best partners between Airbus and Boeing, working hand-in-hand to make sure every new aircraft that we take is as efficient as possible. So, fleet renewals is number one.
Number two, people don't always think about this one but it's a big one that we control, is operational efficiencies. That just means flying as smart as you possibly can. Some basic things include flying straight versus flying all over the place. But also the amount of weight that you put on an aircraft, from how much you're provisioning in your catering section to the weight of the seat. All of that goes into how heavy that aircraft is, and will determine whether you burn a lot of fuel or less.
The third one, which is the most exciting thing that's coming out of this industry right now, is sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF. And that's exciting because sustainable aviation fuel is something many of us have heard about for quite some time, and it's here. It's flying in our airplanes today. Not in large amounts -- we need to talk about how we scale that -- but it works today. It's not just some idea in a lab. You can think about sustainable aviation fuels like biofuels in that they are [made] using things that are not extracted like oil is today, but instead [are made with] used cooking oil or, in the future, we might use inedible corn. That’s a really exciting promise that's going to scale from anywhere between probably 10 percent of jet-fuel consumption around the world in 2030 to upwards of 65 percent by 2050.
Beyond that, the second part of this story is the stuff that's right now mostly in research and development, but we know there's a blueprint for it because we're watching other industries. Think about electric flying. We all are very comfortable with electric cars. Obviously, that's a totally different game when you're trying to have batteries on an airplane, because weight does matter. And safety is critical in our industry. It's electric aircraft. It's hydrogen. Hydrogen is a big part of the climate transition for most industries. That’s the same in the airline industry, whether that's hydrogen as a propulsion system, like Airbus is pioneering right now, or using hydrogen to create e-fuels.
The other one that we're all watching and I think will probably exist at a small scale in 2050 is direct air capture. And what that means is you pull carbon out of the air and put it underground. But in our industry, in particular, there's going to be a nice use case for actually pulling it out of the air, and then recycling it into a new fuel. So those are the things that will be coming in the second part of our journey to net-zero. But all of them are within reason to scale and most models have each one of them playing a part as we go forward.
JM: So, what's next on the Delta sustainability roadmap?
AD: When you think about it, [our commitments include] carbon neutral now, SAF [usage] at 10 percent in 2030, Science Based Targets at 2035. Where Delta will become more involved going forward is going to be on the research and development and the investing to make sure that we are able to scale clean technology for our industry in the future. We work with amazing university partners. MIT is one of them, and they're on the forefront of doing some incredible work to identify what are some additional impacts that the industry has and how do we start to mitigate them. What is the solution when it comes to that next generation of technologies, from electric to hydrogen to sustainable aviation fuels powered from the carbon in the air or hydrogen? You're going to see Delta at the forefront of making sure that we are doing the work in a transparent manner to uncover what are those impacts and what are those solutions.
JM: Thinking ahead to the middle of this decade, what's the story you hope to be able to tell about Delta's sustainability journey?
AD: My number one most important thing is that no traveler ever has to choose between seeing the world and saving the world. Right now we are all faced with this looming crisis, this threat. We hear it every day in the news, our kids talk to us about it, our neighbors talk to us about it. I want people to have the confidence to be able to continue to travel. The reason why that's so important is because sustainability is environment and financial, but it's also social sustainability. And under social sustainability comes an obligation to have an equitable society. Air travel is key to that. It's an industry today that is not available to everyone. In fact, it used to not be available to anyone when it was first introduced and was so expensive. We don't want to go back to that world where air travel is something that is not available to everyone.
When I think about the middle of this decade, I think about using air travel for good, not only to fuel the innovations that come with the environmental aspects of tackling climate change, but really making sure that this industry is a force of good when it comes to not only protecting habitats, protecting small landowners, and protecting biodiversity, but also making sure that we continue to build up those communities that have not had access to air travel in the past, and making sure that our climate transition is really a just transition.
JM: Thanks Amelia.
AD: Thank you, Joel.
Airlines must make sustainability an integral part of their business strategy and not treat it as an afterthought so they can address growing concerns by investors and employees about their climate impact. Amelia DeLuca, Vice President of Sustainability at Delta Air Lines, discusses how airlines can acknowledge their impact and take bold action to reduce emissions today.
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