Top 10: Sustainable Airlines

Top 10 Sustainable Airlines
Ten of the most sustainable airlines using sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) & reducing emissions include United Airlines, Delta Air Lines & JetBlue Airways

Aviation is heralded as one of the least sustainable activities, accounting for 2.5% of global CO₂ emissions and having contributed around 4% to global warming to date.

The busiest day for airlines in 2023 was August 11th, which saw seat capacity hit 18,586,233 – more than the population of 71% of countries, including The Netherlands, Chad or Equador. The quietest in 2023 was January 21st which saw seat capacity of 13,967,001 – more than the population of 67% of countries.

Even at the quietest, the demand for air travel is more than the population of Belgium, Haiti or Benin. 

So what can airlines do to be more sustainable?

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) has a significantly lower carbon footprint compared to traditional jet fuel, and airlines can use it and invest in its development to reduce carbon emissions. Where SAF isn’t or can’t be used, airlines can operate fleets with newer, more efficient models to reduce fuel consumption. 

“Despite reductions in flying during the Covid-19 lockdowns, demand is expected to grow rapidly through 2030,” says the International Energy Agency. 

“New aircraft can be up to 20% more efficient than the models they replace, but growth in activity has historically outpaced efficiency improvement.”

Sometimes controversially, many airlines employ carbon offsetting where they can’t reduce. The controversy comes that some airlines offer it at additional cost to its passengers, which has led to greenwashing allegations currently under review by the EU.

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We’ve listed ten of the most sustainable global airlines based on their net zero goals, ESG ratings, DE&I programmes and industry impact. These airlines have all demonstrated a strong commitment to sustainability through various initiatives and investments in greener technologies, aiming for a substantial impact on reducing their environmental footprint.

10. American Airlines

CEO: Robert Isom

Headquarters: Texas, US

Boeing 737

Founded nearly a century ago, American Airlines has a deep-rooted history leading the industry through innovation and firsts, including hiring the first Black US commercial airline pilot, hiring the first female US commercial airline pilot, launching the first loyalty program of any major carrier and becoming the first airline to introduce airport lounges.

Valuing resilience, American Airlines is prioritising safety, supporting and attracting diverse talent, ensuring a world-class travel experience and positioning itself to compete in a low-carbon economy.

“Climate change, like all aspects of sustainability, is a reminder that the challenges we face are interconnected,” says Robert. 

“Solving them requires bringing people together and forging connections across sectors, geographies, communities and ideologies. That’s why we fly.”

9. EasyJet

CEO: Johan Lundgren

Headquarters: Luton, UK

EasyJet’s roadmap to net zero by 2050

Europe’s leading short-haul airline prides itself on affordability in connecting more than 30 countries and 100 cities. EasyJet’s carbon emissions intensity is approximately 18% lower than the global average, and the company’s continued focus on sustainability includes signing the UN-backed Race to Zero in 2021.

“I’m incredibly proud of the progress that we, and our partners, have made this year and believe that EasyJet is an industry leader on its journey to net zero,” says Johan.

8. Air Canada

CEO: Michael Rousseau

Headquarters: Montreal, Canada

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Air Canada is the largest airline in Canada and flies to six continents. Its fleet of more than 400 aircraft is one of the youngest, most fuel efficient and environmentally friendly in the world. 

“Despite current challenges faced by the airline industry, we remain deeply committed to long-term sustainability, and are committing to a very ambitious climate action plan with aggressive targets,” says Michael, discussing the company’s net zero by 2050 goal and the company’s CA$50m investment in SAF by 2030.

7. Cathay Pacific

CEO: Ronald Lam

Headquarters: Hong Kong

Ronald Lam, CEO of Cathay Pacific

Now offering flights to more than 200 destinations, Cathay Pacific was founded to fly cargo and passengers from Australia into China after the second world war. The airline has committed to using SAF for 10% of Cathay Pacific Airways’ jet fuel consumption by 2030 and is continuing to add more fuel-efficient aircraft to its fleet, including the Airbus A350 and A321neo which are more than 20% more efficient than the aircraft they replace.

Sustainability is inherent in Cathay’s purpose – to move people forward in life in a sustainable and responsible manner for current and future generations,” says Ronald.

“We understand that achieving this purpose in a sustainable and responsible manner for current and future generations requires collective efforts.

“By embracing the collaborative ethos of ‘Greener Together’, we aim to lead by example and reach new heights in building a more sustainable future.”

6. Virgin Atlantic

CEO: Shai Weiss

Headquarters: Crawley, UK

Virgin Atlantic's mission to net zero

First taking flight in 1984, Virgin Atlantic is known for its eye-catching red uniforms – redesigned by Vivienne Westwood in 2014 made from 25% recycled plastic. The company is a big pioneer of SAF, and in 2023 completed the first fully SAF fuelled flight across the Atlantic ocean

“Flight100 proves that Sustainable Aviation Fuel can be used as a safe, drop-in replacement for fossil-derived jet fuel and it’s the only viable solution for decarbonising long haul aviation,” Shai said of the achievement. 

“It’s taken radical collaboration to get here and we’re proud to have reached this important milestone, but we need to push further.

“There’s simply not enough SAF and it’s clear that in order to reach production at scale, we need to see significantly more investment. This will only happen when regulatory certainty and price support mechanisms, backed by the Government, are in place. Flight100 proves that if you make it, we’ll fly it.”

5. British Airways

CEO: Sean Doyle

Headquarters: London, UK

British Airways recently celebrated 70 years of flying to Chicago

Global airline British Airways has been connecting the world for over a century and now boasts 30,000 dedicated people operating newer, more fuel efficient aircraft. The company’s sustainability initiative, known as BA Better World, highlights its ESG strategy and roadmap to net zero by 2050.

Alongside working to reduce cabin waste and increase fuel efficiency, BA is investing in a biofuel plant to convert waste into jet fuel.

“As the UK’s flag carrier, we have a responsibility to help create a sustainable future for our planet, and we’re on a mission to be carbon net zero by 2050,” says Sean.

4. Alaska Airlines

CEO: Ben Minicucci

Headquarters: Seattle, US

Alaska Airlines is working to reduce inflight waste

Originally founded to connect remove villages in Alaska, Alaska Airlines now has a global reach an operates on five core values:

  • Own safety
  • Do the right thing
  • Be kind-hearted
  • Deliver performance
  • Be remarkable

Known for pioneering sustainable aviation fuels, Alaska Airlines has also implemented numerous waste reduction initiatives and energy conservation measures. At Alaska Airlines, sustainability stands for environmental stewardship and social impact – commitments that embody its core values.

“With our long-term way of thinking, care also means making progress toward our goal for Alaska Airlines to be the most fuel efficient US airline,” says Ben. 

“We are on the path toward our ambitious goal of achieving a net-zero carbon footprint by 2040.”

3. JetBlue Airways

CEO: Joanna Geraghty

Headquarters: New York, US

JetBlue's A220

Working towards net zero emissions by 2040 – a decade earlier than many airlines – is no mean feat, and budget airline JetBlue Airways is relying on SAF, partnerships and fuel efficiency to get there. The company is introducing 70 Airbus 220s, bringing up to a 40% improvement in fuel economy per seat, and 85 Airbus 321 neo aircraft, bringing up to 20% improvement per seat. This plays into JetBlue’s industry commitment to improve fuel efficiency an average of 1.5% per year from 2009 to 2020 and reduce net aviation CO2 emissions by 50% by 2050, relative to 2005 levels.

“At its heart, ESG drives performance, allowing us to understand what our risks and opportunities are for our business,” Joanna says. 

“It helps ensure that JetBlue is a desirable and collaborative place to work, where crewmembers feel represented and empowered to deliver at the highest level of service while growing with the company. It also provides us with the platform to enable greater sustainability across the three elements – E, S and G.”

2. Delta Air Lines

CEO: Ed Bastian

Headquarters: Atlanta, US

Delta 737-900ER being loaded with sustainable aviation fuel blend

Both in the air and on the ground, Delta Air Lines  is focused on lowering its carbon footprint, furthering an equitable work environment that values diversity and inclusion and living these values in the communities where its people live, work and serve.

Delta has committed US$1bn over ten years towards sustainability initiatives, aiming to cut half of its fuel emissions by 2050. It has strong commitments to its DE&I initiatives including its Faces of Travel initiative which is core to its long term commitment to increase representation and visibility within travel culture. 

“We must begin the hard work now to deliver more sustainable travel experiences – it’s imperative for our planet, our communities and our business,” says Ed. 

“Our long-term strategy to achieve net-zero GHG emissions by 2050 is focused on transitioning to a more fuel-efficient fleet; increasing the use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF); and reducing fuel use and emissions with enhancements and optimization of our operations. 

“We’re also harnessing innovation to power our journey. In 2023, we launched the Delta Sustainable Skies Lab to advance research, design and testing for a more sustainable future of air travel.”

1. United Airlines

CEO: Scott Kirby

Headquarters: Chicago, US

United's Sustainable Flight Fund online

Working to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, United Airlines has invested more in SAF than any other airline and is proud to be the first airline to commit to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 without relying on carbon offsets. In February 2024, United announced the closure of the UAV Sustainable Flight Fund, which convened US$200m in partner and customer contributions for start-ups focused on decarbonising air travel by accelerating the research, production and technologies associated with SAF. 

"We're embracing a new goal to be 100% green by 2050 by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions 100%,” Scott explains. 

“And we’ll get there not with flashy, empty gestures, but by taking the harder, better path of actually reducing the emissions from flying. We also realise there's a limit to what a single company can do alone. That's why we are continuing to seek opportunities to collaborate with other industries. We must reach across industries to develop coordinated efforts to accomplish what must be our collective goal of carbon neutrality."

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