United Partners with Corporate Customers to Fund Sustainable Aviation Fuel

The Eco-Skies Alliance will eliminate 31,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions this year, says United.

United Airlines plane

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Airlines have been talking about sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) for about as long as people have been conversing about the impact of flying on the climate. Given the limited supply of waste fuel stocks, the idea that we could ever maintain current levels of aviation — let alone meet the demand of a growing, global middle class — has always deserved some scrutiny. 

Earlier this year, when I interviewed Dan Rutherford, the program director for the International Council on Clean Transportation’s (ICCT) Shipping and Aviation initiatives, he surprised me by explaining that SAFs may actually make a meaningful contribution to decarbonizing long-distance travel. 

While waste stocks were indeed in short supply, Rutherford pointed to synthetic kerosene (electrofuel) as actually having some potential to scale. Yet there was a caveat. The trouble with both, he cautioned, was that they would be an order of magnitude more expensive.

Rutherford noted: “…waste-based biofuels are 2 to 5 times as expensive, and electrofuels will be 9-10 times as expensive. Saying, as the airlines have been doing, that we will all get SAFs yet we don’t want to pay more for fuel is pure folly.”

If the prices really are going to be that high, then it’s pretty clear that airlines are not going to simply make the switch and eat the cost. Somebody somewhere is going to have to pay. Governments could play a role, either by mandating or subsidizing SAFs and/or taxing the living daylights out of their fossil-fueled competition. 

But what other levers could be pulled?

In our interview, Rutherford did suggest that consumers — and specifically frequent flyers — could potentially have an impact by refusing to fly unless airlines used SAFs. While we are yet to see that happen on any significant scale, it does appear that some corporate flyers are taking part in more of a "carrot" type approach to incentivizing change. 

Flying under the banner of the Eco-Skies Alliance, United Airlines is working with a group of corporate customers who agree to pay more for the additional costs associated with SAFs. The initial corporate participants include Autodesk, Boston Consulting Group, CEVA Logistics, Deloitte, DHL Global Logistics, DSV Panalpina, HP Inc., Nike, Palantir, Siemens, and Takeda Pharmaceuticals.

It’s a compelling concept. And it is particularly interesting to see United CEO Scott Kirby explicitly frame the initiative as a move beyond carbon offsets — which have so far often been touted by airlines as a solution to emissions.

"While we've partnered with companies for years to help them offset their flight emissions, we applaud those participating in the Eco-Skies Alliance for recognizing the need to go beyond carbon offsets and support SAF-powered flying, which will lead to more affordable supply and ultimately, lower emissions," Kirby said in a statement. "This is just the beginning. Our goal is to add more companies to the Eco-Skies Alliance program, purchase more SAF and work across industries to find other innovative paths towards decarbonization."

According to United, the inaugural companies in the alliance will collectively assist the carrier purchase roughly 3.4 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel this year. That, in turn, will result in the reduction of 31,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

The alliance is currently only open to corporations that have a direct corporate account with either United for Business or United Cargo. And while it is not a non-profit, individuals can also "donate" to the alliance, which United is promising to use to fund SAFs. Any voluntary initiative in which businesses or individual customers pay extra should be viewed with some degree of skepticism, as only a minority of customers are ever likely to be willing to shoulder that cost and volunteerism has sometimes been used as an excuse to resist governmental interventions. 

So while efforts like the Eco-Skies Alliance may offer a meaningful opportunity for businesses to contribute toward SAF development, it won’t replace the need for fiscal or legislative approaches aimed at transitioning airlines away from fossil fuels. It also won’t eliminate the need for demand reduction.

In fact, legislative and consumer-based pressure is probably already working hand-in-hand with such voluntary efforts. It’s likely not an accident that airlines are pushing initiatives like the Eco-Skies Alliance at the same time as countries like France are talking about banning some short-haul domestic flights.

As Rutherford argued in our interview, the sheer emissions intensity of flying means no single solution is likely to be enough. Businesses and individuals alike are going to have to fly less, fly more efficiently, and push airlines toward SAFs and other cleaner technologies.