Fuel Sustainability at Alaska Airlines: Good for the environment and good for business?

Over the last few years Alaska Airlines has become the most profitable airline in the United States while simultaneously topping the charts in fuel sustainability and other environmental initiatives. Is what’s good for the environment what’s best for the bottom line? If so, why are other major carriers not following suit?

Why does Climate Change Matter to Alaska?

Around the globe the aviation industry accounts for about 10 percent of transportation-related oil use totaling approximately 4.5 million barrels per day- a number expected to double by 2030.[1]  Carbon emissions from the airline industry are a significant contributor to global climate change, the effects of which are already affecting the industry in very real ways.  A study released in 2016 shows an increase in the strength of jet stream winds that will lengthen flight times, increase fuel usage, and worsen environmental impact.  Additionally, clear air turbulence is also expected to worsen causing at the very least passenger discomfort and at the most severe aircraft damage and dangerous flight conditions.[2]

In addition to the physical effects of climate change, increased regulations and potential fines are driving the industry toward creative solutions to address the issues at hand.  Domestically, the US airline industry set a goal to “decrease emissions 1.5% per year, with carbon neutral-growth beginning in 2020, and to cut emissions in half (from 2005 levels) by 2020.” [3]  In addition, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), established new regulations entitled CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation), whose goal is to maintain worldwide emissions at the current level despite expected industry growth. Any airline exceeding these levels after 2020 will be required to pay a fine to offset these emissions.

What is Alaska Airlines doing to address these issues?

In their 2016 sustainability report, Alaska pledged to not only meet these regulations but set a company goal to reduce mainline emissions 20% per revenue ton mile over 2009 levels by the 2020 deadline.  They intend to meet this goal through the use of modern fuel-efficient aircraft, by investing in advanced flight technologies, using satellite navigation to fly more efficient (shorter) routes, and to advance the use of sustainable aviation biofuels. [4]

As the 2020 deadline approaches Alaska has made significant progress toward their goals.  In 2016, overall mainline emissions had been reduced 15% from the 2009 baseline through three main initiatives: the use of modern aircraft, increases in operational efficiency, and through initiatives to create better air traffic flow and make routing more efficient.  Alaska’s aircraft fleet is young- Boeing 737 and Bombardier Q400 aircraft are among the most fuel efficient in their class.[5] With fuel being the most expensive operating cost to the airline, increases in fuel efficiency translate to the bottom line which in turn allows Alaska to invest in more fuel-efficient aircraft.[6]

In order to see fuel savings in the area of navigation, Alaska partnered with the Port of Seattle, Boeing, and the FAA on a project called Greener Skies, which “aims to improve the efficiency of flights landing at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to reduce fuel usage, carbon emissions and noise pollution.” [7]  It accomplishes this mission by routing aircraft to the airport in a more direct manner on what can best be described as a sliding board vice a stair step type of decent.  Traditional approach patterns requiring leveling off at intermediate altitudes which requires significantly more fuel.  By working together with these agencies, Alaska has improved efficiency and reduced emissions for not only their own fleet but for all those who fly into the Seattle area.[8]

What comes next?

Alaska Airlines has begun to invest in biofuels, testing a 20 percent blend of corn-based fuel on two flights in June 2016 and in November flying from Seattle to Washington DC using fuel made from post-harvest forest residues (tree limbs and branches left over after sustainable logging).[9]  They have also partnered with Boeing and the Port of Seattle to conduct a $250,000 biofuel infrastructure feasibility study for Seattle airport.  Continuing research into these options and working to optimize flight navigation at other major airports will allow Alaska to continue to see sustainability gains moving into 2020.

Some challenges that Alaska faces are out of their control and pose questions about the future of aviation sustainability practices.  With biofuel production’s challenging certification process and required capital expenditure, will outside companies build the needed commercial infrastructure?Additionally, will demand for these fuels be high enough for commercial construction to begin given that pricing challenges are high following the decrease in traditional fuel prices?[10]

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[1] Mazyar Zeinali et al., “U.S. Domestic Airline Fuel Efficiency Ranking 2010,” The International Council on Clean Transportation, September  2013, p. 14, http://www.theicct.org/sites/default/files/publications/U.S.%20Airlines%20Ranking%20Report%20final.pdf, accessed November 2017.

[2] Paul D. Williams, “Transatlantic flight times and climate change,” http://phys.org/news/2016-02-climate-transatlantic-flights.html, accessed November 2016.

[3] Alaska Airlines, 2016 Sustainability Report, https://www.alaskaair.com/content/about-us/sustainability-report/, accessed November 2017.

[4] Alaska Airlines, 2016 Sustainability Report, https://www.alaskaair.com/content/about-us/sustainability-report/, accessed November 2017.

[5] https://www.triplepundit.com/2014/04/alaska-air-group-sets-aggressive-sustainability-goals/

[6] Natasha Geiling, “Can Eco-Conscious Travelers Do Anything To Fly Green?,” Smithsonian Mag, August 11, 2014, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/if-you-travel-and-care-about-environment-you-should-buy-carbon-offsets-180952222/, accessed November 2017.

[7] Cosgrove, Cole. “Alaska VP asks senators to support extending NextGen ‘all the way to the runway’.” Alaskaair.com. June 27, 2014. Accessed November 13, 2017. https://blog.alaskaair.com/alaska-airlines/green/alaska-vp-asks-senators-to-support-extending-nextgen-all-the-way-to-the-runway/.

[8] “Report Shows Benefits of ‘Greener Skies’ approaches at Sea-Tac Airport,” June 30, 2015, PR Newswire, https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/report-shows-benefits-of-greener-skies-approaches-at-sea-tac-airport-300106956.html, accessed November 12, 2017.

[9] https://www.popsci.com/alaska-airlines-just-completed-forest-powered-flight

[10] Alaska Airlines, 2016 Sustainability Report, https://www.alaskaair.com/content/about-us/sustainability-report/, accessed November 2017.


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Student comments on Fuel Sustainability at Alaska Airlines: Good for the environment and good for business?

  1. As mentioned in your note, with aviation accounting for 10% of transportation-related oil use, it seems gains made in fuel efficiency would provide major environmental benefits. It is interesting to see how different airlines are approaching this challenge and their responsibility to meeting airline industry goals and ICAO regulations. For example, in Delta’s 2016 Corporate Responsibility Report, it does not seem as though they are a big believer in alternative fuels, noting “several airlines have begun to experiment with alternative jet fuel,” but “such fuels have only been proven at fractional blends,” and “are still largely unproven as a replacement for petroleum-based jet fuel with regard to scalability in commercial aviation” [1]. Instead, Delta highlights their investments in Carbon Offset projects for delivering carbon-neutral growth after 2020. To me, this highlights the challenges in making significant gains in actual flight efficiencies. Also, with low fuel prices airlines may be incentivized to keep old, less fuel-efficient planes in service longer. This reminds me of the automotive industry, which has had a tough time getting traction with fuel efficient hybrid vehicles as low fuel prices are allowing customers to go back to big, gas-guzzling SUVs.

    [1] Delta Air Line, Inc. Delta 2016 Corporate Responsibility Report, accessed November 2017.

  2. Alternative fuels have been something that the aerospace industry has been examining for the last two decades with biofuels showing significant promise. The problem with all of the alternative energy sources relative to their typical hydrocarbon based energy sources is that the energy density of these alternatives are drastically lower. Energy density is an important metric to look at for fuel on vehicles because it can be used to tell you how much energy for a given density which is correlated to the take off weight of the vehicle. Low energy density means heavier fuel weight and shorter range, higher energy density means lighter fuel weight and longer range. To use biofuels in aircraft may require redesigns in seals and hoses for carrying fuels, as the viscosity of the biofuels is different from hydrocarbons and causes leaks. Which is why biofuels are usually mixed with their typical jet fuel to get a “cleaner burn”, this is the type of fuel examined in the biofuel infrastructure study.

    A switch to 100% biofuel use will be unsustainable without finding additives to increase the energy density of the fuels. Also, the number of hectares of plants required to fuel the aviation fleet of the world would exceed arable land capacity, without any changes to energy density. Furthermore, the energy used to process plants into biofuels is substantially higher than that used to process oil into jet fuel. Ultimately more research is required before a viable commercial infrastructure can be put in place.

  3. Alaska Air’s initiative to become a sustainability leader among airlines is an admirable goal and particularly important from a social perspective given how much climate change will affect Alaska’s environment. However, because Alaska Air’s fleet is already quite young, I assume that continuing to invest in more efficient planes does not offer as much of a decrease in emissions across the Alaska Air fleet as for other airlines. Therefore, the investment in alternative fuels seems to have much more significant potential for Alaska Air to improve its emissions footprint.

    Given that, how sustainable are alternative fuels for Alaska Airlines? According to the EIA, the energy content of ethanol is 33% less than gasoline, and fuel economy for E10 automotive fuel is 3% less than for gasoline.[1] For airlines, where fuel represents a large share of operating costs, the added weight from increased fuel volume necessary to make up for the decreased fuel economy will need to be covered with even more fuel, the increased costs could be significant. At what cost is ethanol fuel worth it for airlines, and are there more efficient, or less expensive, alternatives?

    [1] “How much ethanol is in gasoline, and how does it affect fuel economy?,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, March 29, 2017, https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=27&t=4, accessed November 2017.

  4. I think that alternative fuels/ biofuels are quite challenging to implement due to energy density. This is really a problem for the airplane manufacturers to solve, and less so for the airlines. Biofuels cannot be used for an extended period of time in the current fleet of airplanes without component redesign/ replacement. The fuel tank has a finite amount of space, so the range of the aircraft is effectively decreased when using biofuels. Furthermore, in flights below max range, more biofuel must be carried, which increases the weight of the plane and works against the biofuel benefits since more fuel is burned.

    One interesting aspect of increasing airplane efficiency is flight route optimization. A huge amount of fuel is consumed during takeoff, so very short flights are not fuel efficient. On the other end of the spectrum, near maximum airplane range flights require larger amounts of fuel to be carried, which decreases efficiency as well. This means that the most efficient flight length is somewhere in between those extremes (2000-3000 nautical miles for 777). Flights can be planned to have increased numbers of layovers to increase efficiency. However, this would of course contribute to more inconvenience to customers.

  5. As someone who usually thinks of the improvement in airline fuel efficiency and emissions standards in the context of better and newer aircraft from the major equipment producers, I found this article interesting. I think there’s real promise in the context of flight route optimization, but unfortunately, I think there is capped upside here. While there are certainly improvements to be made in changing an aircraft’s departure and approach trajectory to a more linear or efficient path, once the optimal path is reached, there is no further improvement that can be made. As a result, I ultimately think that the biggest responsibility for fuel efficiency and emissions improvements continues to be on the aircraft manufacturers.

  6. Really interesting article. I’m encouraged that Alaska Airlines is looking to build more fuel-efficient planes, but I’m not convinced this will be a solution to emissions from the aerospace industry. There are already a large number of planes in the market with long lifespans, and building a plane is a very energy and carbon-intensive process. Excluding the older generation of planes, I expect it wouldn’t make environmental or economic sense to replace most planes for the sake of fuel efficiency. (I would be happy to be proven wrong here.) However, it’s certainly a good sign that new planes will be meeting higher efficiency standards.

    I also share some of the skepticism around biofuels noted in the other comments, due to their lower efficiency.

    I see here a clear case for more regulation – for example, by imposing carbon taxes that encourage consumers to fly less. These policies could give a competitive advantage to firms like Alaska Airlines that are making emissions-reducing investments. Moreover, they would reduce the environmental impact of the airlines industry even in the absence of technological silver bullets.

  7. Great article Lauren. It will be interesting to see how other airlines approach the adoption of the CORSIA regulations. Given the CORSIA has introduced the rules through a voluntary compliance period (2021-2026, after which it will become mandatory), I wonder if other airlines will view non-compliance until 2026 as a strategic way to remain price / cost leaders in the industry. Given the amount of investment re


  8. Apologies, accidentally posted before finishing the thought. Complete post below:

    Great article Lauren. It will be interesting to see how other airlines approach the adoption of the CORSIA regulations. Given the CORSIA has introduced the rules through a voluntary compliance period (2021-2026, after which it will become mandatory), I wonder if other airlines will view non-compliance until 2026 as a strategic way to remain price / cost leaders in the industry [1]. Given the amount of investment required to appropriately address the new regulations (i.e. improved technology, including the deployment of sustainable low-carbon fuels, more efficient aircraft operations and infrastructure improvements, including modernized air traffic management systems), Alaska Airlines’ competitors may wait to be late movers in these efforts and effectively outsource the expensive technological advancements to the first movers. It will be interesting to see how this affects the profitability of both sets of airlines over the coming years and the resulting competitive environment.

    [1] http://www.iata.org/policy/environment/Pages/climate-change.aspx

  9. Incredibly interesting topic – it sounds like Alaska Airlines is doing some pretty amazing things (I really enjoyed the part about optimizing the landing process).

    My main thoughts focus on the biofuels section. As implemented currently, biofuels have some issues. Ethanol produced from corn in the US is notoriously problematic. Many studies suggest that the energy value of ethanol is net negative (1). The fact in many cases it takes more energy to produce ethanol than you get from combusting ethanol just means it isn’t sustainable. That being said, ethanol produced from sugar cane in South America is much more energetically favorable (though subsidies in this sector have resulted in the deforestation of rainforests).

    Additionally, the fact that corn ethanol competes with food prices (is the main component of animal feed in the US) also means that it raises food prices. In the U.S., those with lower disposable incomes spend a greater proportion of their income on food and groceries. This means that subsidies for biofuels (which come from taxes payed by all citizens) cause extreme negative externalities for the poorest segments of society.

    In the late 19th century in New York, gas vehicles were lauded as environmental saviors for saving the city from the problem of horse waste pollution. A century later we look at gas-guzzling vehicles a bit differently. While cars swapped one environmental issue with another, corn ethanol doesn’t seem to solve any environmental problem.

    1. http://news.cornell.edu/stories/2001/08/ethanol-corn-faulted-energy-waster-scientist-says

  10. First off, it was great to read a piece on this topic from an aviation professional’s perspective. I think Alaska Airlines finds itself at the exact intersection of social good and business interest, and I suspect customer demand is a leading motivator. The company is based out of Seattle and has hubs in Anchorage and Portland [1]. Seattle and Portland regularly show up on lists of the most environmentally friendly cities in the country [2]; Washington and Oregon are considered to be amongst the “greenest” states in the country, in part due to government regulation [3]. It stands to reason that the same citizens supporting said public policies are also customers who are likely to reward sustainability efforts from the businesses they patronize.

    Your essay has generated a really interesting discussion. I do not know the exact difference between airplane and automobile fuel, but I assume there are similarities and R&D synergies to be had. Autos in the US consumed roughly 15 times more fuel in 2014 than did airplanes [4]; it stands to reason that they will attract more money and brainpower to the development of biofuels. I would love to know more about the overall wisdom of parallel processing this line of research.

    I think Erik and Daniel’s points, taken together, might make for an interesting public policy solution. If a disproportionate amount of emission is caused by a certain type of flight, then tightly targeted regulation might be able to influence customer behavior; Amtrak might quickly become more appealing than a regional shuttle. I would be interested to discuss this as a group.

    1. Alaska Airlines, “Company Facts,” https://www.alaskaair.com/content/about-us/newsroom/as-fact-sheet, accessed December 2017

    2. “Which U.S. City is the Greenest? It Depends on Whom You Ask.” Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-greenest-american-cities, accessed December 2017

    3. “10 Greenest States in the U.S.”, Chicago Tribune, April 22, 2017, http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/ct-2017-greenest-states-20170418-photogallery.html, accessed December 2017

    4. The U.S. Department of Treasury Bureau of Transportation Statistics, “Fuel Consumption by Mode of Transportation in Physical Units,” https://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/sites/rita.dot.gov.bts/files/publications/national_transportation_statistics/html/table_04_05.html, accessed December 2017

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