Jetblue & Sustainability – Is it all just a bunch of hot air?

The airline industry is feeling the pressure to prepare for climate change… It's going to be a long flight, folks!

During the flight experience on Jetblue, flight attendants pass through the aisle with two bags – one for recycling and one for trash. As an impressionable customer, this lead me to the conclusion “Jetblue cares about recycling, so Jetblue cares about sustainability so Jetblue cares about climate change.” Let’s see how that shakes out.

Jetblue is undoubtedly affected by climate change – in its physical manifestation, its resulting regulatory changes, and the growing pressure from constituents to care about it.

Physical manifestation

As airlines contribute to the physical manifestation of climate change in the form of GHG emissions, the physical manifestation is likewise increasingly affecting air travel.

First, the increased speeds of jet streams due to increased temperatures and wind speeds are likely attributable to climate change. Increased jet stream speeds may speed up certain flights and decrease others, but, on the whole, are likely to increase times of the round-trip flight[i]. To illuminate the impact, even just a 1 minute and 18 seconds per day delay on transatlantic flights adds $22M in extra fuel and 70M extra kilograms of CO2 emitted per year.

A second effect is that, with rising temperatures, flying in extremely hot weather will become increasingly challenging. Hot air is less dense which affects the output of engines as well as the aerodynamics of the plane. Therefore, taking off in hot temperatures requires more energy and runway space which is why aircraft weight reduction is a “hot” topic in the face of climate change.

International and Domestic Regulatory Action (or lack thereof)

Last month, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a specialized agency within the U.N., agreed on a new global market-based measure (MBM) aimed at reducing and controlling CO2 emissions from international aviation[1].

The MBM scheme, called Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), will start its pilot phase in 2021[2]. Currently, 66 countries including the U.S are on board.

CORSIA includes technical and operational improvement goals as well as improvements in the production and use of sustainable alternative fuels for aviation.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is also expected to publish rules regulating emissions from aircraft although the slow rule-making process is discouraging. Even then, according to the New York Times, environmental groups are skeptical that the EPA will propose weak standards. The EPA, however, has suggested that any domestic rules will be of at least equivalent stringency to the ICAO rules[3].

Pressure from constituents

Employees, shareholders, and passengers all expect Jetblue to tackle the issue of climate change. By positioning itself as a young, forward-thinking, and caring company, Jetblue has set itself up for additional public scrutiny because of high expectations for Jetblue to “do the right thing.”

What is Jetblue doing?

  • Since 2006, Jetblue has published thorough sustainability reports allowing transparency into its operation.
  • Jetblue has partnered with carbongund.org through which:
    • Passengers can donate to support carbon reduction projects,
    • Jetblue participates in tree planting events,
    • Jetblue has helped fund seven renewable energy and carbon-reduction projects; and
    • Jetblue has offset more than 1.5 billion pounds of CO2 emissions.
  • Jetblue has honored the “industry pledge” conceived by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) which sets the following targets:
  • Improve fuel efficiency 1.5% per year from 2009 to 2020,
  • Target a cap on net aviation COemissions from 2020 (carbon-neutral growth); and
  • Reduce net aviation COemissions of 50% by 2050, relative to 2005 levels.
  • Jetblue added Sharklets to its fleet which improve fuel efficiency by roughly 3 percent.
  • Jetblue is the only airline to sign the American Business Act on Climate Pledge.
  • Jetblue recently placed one of the largest purchases for renewable fuel via a 10 year deal with SG Preston[4].

It is enough?

The list above is not insignificant. Jetblue’s focus on renewable fuel and partnership with carbonfund.org in particular convey its long-term strategy and serious approach to climate change. According to Jetblue President and CEO, Robin Hays, “The future of aviation relies in part on renewable energy sources. We’re taking a leadership role in technology and other advancements including renewable jet fuels.”

Yet, there is much room for improvement. Jetblue and the U.S airline industry as a whole can learn from the European players. Air France in particular has implemented creative and effective strategies such as partnering and innovating in the supply chain, training pilots on fuel efficient practices, educating passengers with CO2 emissions calculators and modernizing fleet and aircraft interiors[5].

Gay Browne, founder of Greenopia seems to agree, “Offsets in particular are a great way to mitigate some of the impact from traveling, but have not really taken off in the U.S. as they have in Europe.[6]

Word count: 779

[1] http://www.icao.int/Newsroom/Pages/Historic-agreement-reached-to-mitigate-international-aviation-emissions.aspx

[2] http://www.icao.int/environmental-protection/Pages/A39_CORSIA_FAQ2.aspx

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/11/business/energy-environment/epa-says-it-will-set-rules-for-airplane-emissions.html?_r=0

[4] http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20160919006273/en/JetBlue-Announces-Largest-Renewable-Jet-Fuel-Purchase

[5] http://csrreport2015.airfranceklm.com/web/app.php/en/category/4/en/pdf

[6] http://travel.cnn.com/explorations/life/us-and-europes-most-eco-airlines-revealed-173008/

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11 thoughts on “Jetblue & Sustainability – Is it all just a bunch of hot air?

  1. What Jetblue is doing alone may not be sufficient to combat GHG emissions caused by the airline industry. According to IATA, commercial flights are expected to carry 3.6 billion passengers in 2016. The figure is expected to grow to 5 billion in 2020. There must be a push within the industry as a whole to move towards a greener future. Some solutions I believe may be warranted include:

    (1) Pressuring airplane manufacturers (including Boeing and Airbus) to create more fuel efficient engines;
    (2) Designing more efficient configuration of cabin and storage holding space;
    (3) Reducing the number of low-cost carriers;
    (4) Imposing additional government taxes on flight tickets to reduce demand; and
    (5) Imposing maximum flight speed for commercial speeds.

  2. Hi!

    Even though I’m a frequent traveler, I have never realized that JetBlue actually separates its flights’ trash. This is a nice approach the company has on the issue and from now on, I’ll be more aware of the need to separate my trash on flights as well.

    I also have never thought about the relationship between hot temperatures and the energy required to a plane to take off. This makes total sense and, indeed, is an alert of the “unseen” impacts rising temperatures have on our daily activities.

    On the fuel efficiency issue, the numbers you show are impressive.I see a major effort from airplane manufacturers such as Boeing, Airbus, and Embraer to manufacture more eco-friendly and fuel efficiency planes. However, airlines should also assume the responsibility and contribute – not only pressure – for more sustainable practices. I was happy to learn that JetBlue is taking the lead on this issue!

  3. In a lot of ways, U.S.-based companies have a lot to learn from their European counterparts! I agree that while JetBlue has undertaken meaningful actions to promote sustainability, there is room for improvement. Thinking more broadly about the airline segment, I think there is a significant opportunity to work with upstream suppliers and partners to design more fuel-efficient, sustainable engines and airplanes as well as decrease CO2 emissions throughout the value chain. I wonder if there is a way to educate consumers on the sustainability practices of different airlines. For instance, if JetBlue truly is a leader in sustainability compared to other airlines, it should promote this aspect as another key differentiator. Consumers may be more inclined to choose JetBlue vs. other airlines – and even pay a premium – so they can do their part in fighting climate change.

  4. Nice post! While I agree that JetBlue has taken significant steps to reduce its carbon footprint, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has identified the carrier as having room to go with its commitment to adopting aviation biofuels. In particular, the NRDC claims that JetBlue has not shown the same level of commitment as other airlines (1) to have broad involvement in creating fuel supply chains and (2) to use and purchase sustainable fuels and monitor and disclose performance. An easy win for JetBlue would be to disclose the total volume of biofuels it uses and where these are sourced from. Going back to our “save the world” and “maximize profitability” framework – I think adopting biofuels has the possibility of increasing passenger volume by showing commitment to sustainability while also helping reduce carbon footprint.

  5. Thanks for the JetBlue analysis! I was curious when you mentioned that Air France makes a CO2 emissions calculator available on its website. Air France’s methodology (http://corporate.airfrance.com/en/sustainable-development/calculate-and-offset-your-co2-emissions/methodology/) takes into account the actual historical passenger load factor (percentage of seats occupied) in order to calculate a single passenger’s offsetting requirements.

    I like the spirit of what the calculator is trying to accomplish, but it does highlight the fact that if airlines or passengers are to be taxed to offset emissions at a per-passenger level, there is a lot to clarify, including:

    -Who is responsible for paying for unused capacity? For example, if 50 seats are empty, should the tax be levied on the passengers who are flying, or should the airline pay the tax on those 50 seats since load factor is not under a passenger’s control?

    -Should there be differentiated pricing for first class vs. economy seats since each first class passenger uses space that could otherwise accommodate multiple economy class passengers?

    -In Air France’s current methodology, it appears the average weight of cargo/baggage is also allocated equally to passengers. Presumably a more precise version would charge passengers by the actual weight or their carry-on and checked baggage, with cargo shippers paying for the weight of their own shipments.

  6. While JetBlue and other airlines certainly have the ability to influence climate change through the operation of their existing fleet, how much emphasis is being put on the acquisition of more environmentally-friendly equipment? While the Boeing 787 Dreamliner was impacted by years of delays and significant cost overruns, it’s now finally in production. Airbus now offers a similarly-minded product in the A350, that aims to reduce weight through the usage of composite materials (and therefore reduces fuel consumption). Some companies have adopted these new airframes quickly (such as Norwegian Air), but others have yet to make this investment, likely due to their cost. Despite the investment needed, at what point should consumers pressure airlines to retire its aging fleet and purchases more eco-friendly aircraft to increase sustainability efforts?

  7. I am curious how binding this industry pledge is, if at all. If JetBlue is not able to institute these changes in a cost effective manner that does not erode profits is it likely that they will stake make the needed changes? Further, with JetBlue being the only company to sign the American Business act pledge, will they be put at a competitive disadvantage.

  8. Thanks a lot for such an interesting post! I saw that you mentioned Air France as an example in terms of sustainable measures – with partnering and innovating in the supply chain, training pilots on fuel efficient practices, educating passengers with CO2 emissions calculators and modernizing fleet and aircraft interior. However, Air France has been in considerable financial difficulties over the last years – leading to strong cost and debt cutting. Do you think such company can stand for an example? To what extent do you think that the innovative measures Air France developed can explain its decline in operation performance – from a purely financial perspective?

  9. Awesome post! What factors do you think have led the European carriers to be ahead of American players like JetBlue? Is it regulations, social pressure, or something else?

  10. Wow I am a [dumb] pilot and didn’t know that climate change was increasing speeds of jet streams – wouldn’t this also have the effect of reducing the travel times (and costs) of some flights as well? Love some good tail winds.

    Also loved the point about hot air – definitely makes flying more challenging and increases the energy required. When operating in HOT environments I have had to abort many takeoffs because the engines indicated they were overheating. Certainly a “hot” topic.

  11. I worry about the significant percentage of Jet Blue’s (and other domestic carriers’) actions to “go green” that are rooted in marketing gimmicks, not systemic change. Carbon offsets are important for the last mile, but they are not a true solution. Recycling in the aisles is important, and we should not discount the small steps that companies are making, but it is no commitment to biofuel. One area of improvement that I found at Delta is their commitment to greening their ground operations through electric vehicles and other retrofits. Did you find any indications that Jet Blue is making investments in cleaner technology to power its ground operations?

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