Climate Change and Delta Airlines: a two-way street at 35,000 feet

While the 7.1 billion people living on earth absorb climate changes’ insidious effects subtly, Delta Airlines staff and passengers experience its consequences daily.

“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[1]

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.[2] 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.

Round Trip

A jet stream is a fast-moving air current that occurs at an airplane’s cruising altitude.[3] 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.[4] 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,[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] A side effect of stronger jet streams, CAT are undetectable to radar.[8] Williams forecasts that within 40 years turbulence intensity will increase by 10-40 percent due to double CO2 in the atmosphere.[9] CAT is more than an uncomfortable ride – it’s $128 million in turbulence repair costs.[10]

Realigning Incentives

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….”[11]

Delta’s modest actions have led to moderate improvements[12] 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.[13] Rather than methods to reduce emissions permanently, purchased carbon offsets make up an increasing share of Delta’s carbon neutrality metric.[14]

Path Forward 

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,[15] 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;[16] 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.[17] Increasing Delta’s investment and refocusing the partnership to support sustainable solutions for biofuel alternatives,[18] 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.[19]

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[1] http://www.delta.com/content/dam/delta-www/about-delta/corporate-responsibility/2015DeltaAirLines_CorporateResponsibilityReport.pdf

[2] http://www.delta.com/content/dam/delta-www/about-delta/corporate-responsibility/2015DeltaAirLines_CorporateResponsibilityReport.pdf, page 17

[3] http://www.intellicast.com/National/Wind/JetStream.aspx

[4] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/news/climate-change-to-increase-turbulence-flight-times-and-costs/

[5] http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/11/2/024008/pdf

[6] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/news/Planes-set-for-bumpier-rides-scientists-warn/

[7] http://www.popularmechanics.com/flight/news/a21384/turbulence-flight-280-extreme-clear-air/

[8] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/news/Planes-set-for-bumpier-rides-scientists-warn/

[9] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/news/Planes-set-for-bumpier-rides-scientists-warn/

[10] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/news/Planes-set-for-bumpier-rides-scientists-warn/

[11] http://www.delta.com/content/www/en_US/about-delta/corporate-responsibility.html

[12] 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

[13] http://www.delta.com/content/dam/delta-www/about-delta/corporate-responsibility/2015DeltaAirLines_CorporateResponsibilityReport.pdf, page 21

[14] http://www.delta.com/content/dam/delta-www/about-delta/corporate-responsibility/2015DeltaAirLines_CorporateResponsibilityReport.pdf, page 21

[15] http://www.popularmechanics.com/flight/news/a21384/turbulence-flight-280-extreme-clear-air/

[16] http://www.popularmechanics.com/flight/news/a21384/turbulence-flight-280-extreme-clear-air/

[17] http://www.delta.com/content/dam/delta-www/about-delta/corporate-responsibility/2015DeltaAirLines_CorporateResponsibilityReport.pdf, page 16

[18] http://www.delta.com/content/dam/delta-www/about-delta/corporate-responsibility/2015DeltaAirLines_CorporateResponsibilityReport.pdf, page 17

[19] “Climate Change in 2016: Implications for Business,” Harvard Business School, Rev. October 14, 2016

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2 thoughts on “Climate Change and Delta Airlines: a two-way street at 35,000 feet

  1. With the increase in technology of finding Clear Air Turbulence (CAT), how does that help with Delta’s efficiency? It will make it more profitable in the long run with higher customer satisfaction rating, however it should be noted that when there is known turbulence passenger aircraft are usually routed around such turbulence for safety and comfort reasons. This additional routing, above, below or around the turbulence will cause additional fuel to be expended by going away from the most direct route [1]. The aviation industry has made huge changes in the last 20 years to decrease the cost of air travel and to be more fuel-efficient, however with climate change and increasing CO2, increasing temperatures and increasing Jetstream size and speeds, this is working against the efficiencies made. Though there are great safety reasons for identifying CAT while in the air, this cannot replace the need for pilots continuing to report turbulence so that when other pilots are preparing for a flight they can build in a plan around known turbulence at the onset and try to avoid being re-routed in-flight.

    1 Soo Kim, “Climate Change to Influence Turbulence, Flight Times, and Fares,” The Telegraph 12 May 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/news/climate-change-to-increase-turbulence-flight-times-and-costs/ accessed November 6, 2018.

  2. Great article!
    I am concerned that Delta does not really have any incentive to invest in the research of new technologies (and not even if it should, given the profitability target).
    Although I agree that such projects can have positive NPV, they will require a huge investment upfront and a fairly big risk (they might not be able to create an environment-friendly aircraft).

    Being realistic, I feel that Delta has the potential to optimize its routes and policies (e.g. garbage collection) to reduce its impact in the environment, but disruptive changes will probably come from outsiders developers. What we must ask from Delta is the adoption of these new technologies when the time comes – this will show their commitment to the environment in a more realistic and feasible way.

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