Since fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions correlate nearly exactly, U.S. airlines have a financial incentive to improve their environmental performance. According to officials at the Air Transport Association, the national trade group for commercial airlines, environmental performance continues to improve and other initiatives are on deck.
Speaking in a conference call with several aviation bloggers, ATA vice president for environmental affairs Nancy Young identified environmental performance, improving the nation’s air traffic control infrastructure, and energy policy as the airlines’ top policy priorities. The desire for fuel efficiency leads to greenhouse gas emissions reduction, she said: “We couldn’t be more motivated to do the right thing there.” Among these initiatives are alternative, environmentally and food-supply friendly fuels. Young said that it is much harder to develop this kind of fuel for air-based engine units. A 50/50 synthetic blend is currently being tested, she said, with the aim of having 50 percent of the jet fuel supply in alternatives by 2025.
ATA has also adopted an industry-wide goal of improving fuel efficiency by 30 percent by 2025. This can be done, she said, by upgrading fleets, investing in new aircraft (e.g., replacing American Airlines’ MD-80s with B-737s) and enhancing current aircraft (such as fitting them with winglets). John Heimlich, ATA’s chief economist, added that more efficient air traffic control navigation — such as optimal flight paths, continuous descent, and the like — would improve both operational and environmental performance. Heimlich also defended the recent spate of baggage fees as an environmental initative: “When the customer is imposing a fuel penalty on us, as with baggage, we pass that cost on to them.” The airlines are cutting down on fuel use by modifying passenger behavior.
Young said that airlines are pursuing more point-to-point flying, which — although it sacrifices some of the consumer-friendly network effects of hubs — offers what she called a “ten to fifteen percent improvement in environmental performance.”
In response to a question about airlines’ contribution to atmospheric multipliers of climate change, Young said that the ATA is taking a “long, hard look at this.” She said that the ATA’s reliable sources on climate change are the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 1999 sector-specific report on aviation and the IPCC’s assessments since then. “We and ICAO asked them to update that report on aviation,” she said. She also cited David Fahey of NOAA, who testified at a hearing I covered in May. According to Young, Fahey says that every time we get more knowledge about water vapor and contrails (some of the biggest unknowns in terms of their contribution to climate change), the actual effects are lesser than the “wilder assumptions” about their impacts.
Sharon Pinkerton, ATA’s vice president for government affairs, provided a brief preview of how the 111th Congress might handle aviation. There is “tremendous uncertainty on the Hill right now,” she said. “I think that it will be very very difficult for Congress to come out of the box with something that is a punitive tax, which is what cap-and-trade essentially is.” A “punitive” cap-and-trade bill would be “disastrous” for the U.S. airline industry, which she projected will lose $5-6 billion this year and which she said pays $18 billion every year in special taxes, fuel taxes and security fees.
The ATA was closely following the fight between Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the winner, and John Dingell (D-Mich.) for the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, through which longtime chair or ranking member Dingell has blocked meaningful climate change legislation.