“Delta flies more than 5,000 flights a day around the globe. Jet fuel accounts for more than 98 percent of our carbon footprint. That’s why we are … implementing measures to be a more carbon-conscious company in the air and on the ground.”
— Delta CEO Ed Bastian
Climate change’s effects are undeniable: unprecedented levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emitted into the atmosphere cause higher temperatures and rising sea levels, lead to more instances of severe weather, and alter the jet stream. While the 7.1 billion people living on earth absorb climate changes’ insidious effects subtly, Delta Airlines staff and passengers experience its consequences daily.
There is an irony to climate change’s impact on the transportation industry. Few industries have played a more direct role in releasing carbon into the atmosphere. While passenger cars are the leading source, emissions from commercial aircraft represent 3% of total GHG. Historically, society bore the cost of jet fuel emissions. However, the societal cost of these emissions now has a name, global warming, which has introduced significant costs to Delta Airlines and threats to its operating model.
A jet stream is a fast-moving air current that occurs at an airplane’s cruising altitude. On east-bound flights, jet streams help planes operate more efficiently. Conversely, west-bound flights fight against jet streams, requiring more fuel and time.
Scientists believe that elevated CO2 levels amplify jet stream effects. Unfortunately, faster east-bound flights do not net out the longer time now required for west-bound flights. Meteorologist Paul Williams estimated that transatlantic routes will yield in an extra 2,000 hours of airborne time per year, representing 7.2 million gallons of jet fuel, an additional 70 million kilograms of CO2, and $22 million cost increase. While Delta has taken advantage of recent low fuel prices, longer flight time per mile will impact Delta’s operating income as fuel prices rationalize.
Fasten Seatbelt sign is here to stay
Clouds are visual cues of turbulence. Using radar, or the naked eye, pilots can anticipate turbulence and prepare accordingly. But not all turbulence is created equally. Increasingly aircraft encounter clear-air turbulence (CAT), an invisible “wind shear” resulting from pockets of diverse air mixing together. A side effect of stronger jet streams, CAT are undetectable to radar. Williams forecasts that within 40 years turbulence intensity will increase by 10-40 percent due to double CO2 in the atmosphere. CAT is more than an uncomfortable ride – it’s $128 million in turbulence repair costs.
To Delta, sustainability means “meeting the company’s financial goals of growth and profitability over time, through business practices that minimize the environmental impacts of Delta operations….”
Delta’s modest actions have led to moderate improvements in sustainability. Profits, however, continue to rise despite increased operating expenses from challenges caused by climate change. While achieving significant reduction from 2005 – 2013, Delta’s emissions have increased steadily in the years since. Rather than methods to reduce emissions permanently, purchased carbon offsets make up an increasing share of Delta’s carbon neutrality metric.
Delta must tackle the cause and effects of climate change by making robust investments in technology that improve operations in response to climate change’s effects and reduce its carbon footprint. Despite upfront investment, these technologies can be NPV positive. For example, “Demonstration of LIDAR based Clear Air Turbulence” uses lasers to measure air density and detect CAT. Rather than pilots reporting CAT retroactively, DELICAT enables pilots to detect and avoid CAT, just as traditional radar helps pilots avoid visible turbulence. Currently, DELICAT is in proof-of-concept phase; Delta’s investment could expedite DELICAT’s deployment, saving millions of dollars in annual turbulence repair costs.
Delta made a modest $3 million contribution to the Georgia Tech Advanced Manufacturing Pilot Facility to incubate student research and support the airline’s continued innovation. Increasing Delta’s investment and refocusing the partnership to support sustainable solutions for biofuel alternatives, routing efficiencies, and fuel per seat mile metrics could help Delta operations meet and mitigate the demands of climate change.
Voting with their seats
By investing in new and clean technology available today, Delta can define the future of clean air travel. The increasing prevalence of eco-conscious passengers would surely reward their investment.
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 Adhering to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) framework, Delta reports on its progress towards industry-wide goals for absolute emissions reductions: Fuel efficiency improvement of 1.5% per year 2009 – 2020; Carbon-neutral growth starting after 2020; and 50% reduction of the world air transport’s carbon footprint by 2050. http://www.delta.com/content/dam/delta-www/about-delta/corporate-responsibility/2015DeltaAirLines_CorporateResponsibilityReport.pdf, page 17
 “Climate Change in 2016: Implications for Business,” Harvard Business School, Rev. October 14, 2016