Delta’s sustainability chief says there’s no need to feel guilty if you fly

Delta Air Lines’ business has recovered from its pandemic low, with demand for business and leisure travel now in close proximity to pre-pandemic levels. As the airline, the US’s top-grossing airline, regains altitude, it has also increased its environmental focus, both because of the cost efficiencies these efforts can offer and increased scrutiny of the airline’s sustainability.

Last fall, Delta named Pam Fletcher, an engineer by training and veteran of General Motors, as her sustainability chief, reporting directly to CEO Ed Bastian. Their mission: to help Delta achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, a goal the International Air Transportation Association set for the industry just under a year ago.

For Delta, this includes working with other airlines to create a larger, viable market for Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), which is far more environmentally friendly to produce but expensive due to limited supply and a small market. Her job also includes working with aircraft manufacturers to advance the development of more fuel-efficient engines. These two components are critical to Delta as they address the source of 98% of Delta’s current emissions. But Fletcher has also made smaller steps, like replacing plastic inflight meal utensils with bamboo ones and offering vegan meals on all flights.

Fletcher agrees the industry’s environmental goals are ambitious, but says they need to be. “If we don’t bring something to market, we won’t see progress at the required level,” she says wealth. Operating cost benefits aside, better environmental performance is crucial at a time when more and more people, fair or not, equate flying with environmental damage.

But for Fletcher, this is a false dilemma as Delta works to reduce its emissions. “We don’t think you have to choose between seeing the world and saving the world,” she says.

This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.

wealth: The global aviation industry has set itself the goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Is that an achievable goal or a moonshot to motivate companies to work toward that goal?

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fletcher: You always need a goal to shoot at. If we don’t bring anything to market, we won’t see progress at the level that needs to happen. What I’m going to tell you is that we are determined to make it happen. It doesn’t come without challenges because there are plenty of them, but with great rewards comes great challenges.

One of those challenges is the limited supply and high price of SAF, which while environmentally friendly, accounts for a tiny percentage of the fuel currently used. WWhat is required for wider adoption?

That’s the big question. For me it’s like a miracle cure because it can be used in our existing systems. We don’t have to inject new capital into things like new motor drive systems in order to deploy SAF and achieve a dramatic improvement and reduction in our carbon footprint. It’s amazing. The problem is that the supply of SAF isn’t widespread.

So what has to happen?

Delta, our other airline colleagues, and people in the fuel ecosystem and value stream really need to come around the table. What we can do to drive commercialization of SAF is increase usage to meet our mid-term goals and our long-term goals and make the market viable. But we also have additional components in our strategy to reduce risk if SAF is not playing out as ultimately required.

As Chief Sustainability Officer, how do you determine what Delta can and must do to reduce its carbon footprint?

There are three main points. One area is our emissions. The vast majority of our carbon footprint, 98%, comes from operating our jets. Another is to create a zero-impact travel experience — what happens on board the plane, what happens around the plane at the gates — and make that travel experience as sustainable as possible. There are also fully sustainable business ecosystems or what you see in our facilities, how we deal with wastewater, the supply chain and so on.

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Our goal now is progress, so in the short term there are many things that we can control and change today. This is a high priority for us. At the same time, we need to start working on the possibilities that can be implemented more in the medium to long term. That includes SAF and disruptive technology, be it in our propulsion or airframe design, to truly decarbonize our business.

You are an engineer by training. Could you do this job without this background?

I’ve spent most of my career on the front end of trends and new technologies, and what ultimately taught me is how to be comfortable with ambiguity, a method of thinking through problems that don’t yet have solutions. Look at the example of electrification in the auto industry: When I started in 2005, no one saw this as a future business model for the auto industry, but that’s where it ended up. And now it applies to the challenge of aviation and its decarbonization.

Delta is gradually renewing its fleet. Give us a progress report.

Delta will renew a large part of our fleet over the next few years. With these aircraft innovations come very measurable improvements in efficiency, as 20% to 25% less fuel is used to travel the same distance. We’re also working to make our operations more efficient, and there are countless ways to do that: how we manage the weight of our carts, how we power the planes, the maintenance performed on them, and so on.

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So what’s the toughest nut to crack for an airline on the sustainability front?

For me it’s actually a pretty simple question. Ultimately, true decarbonization will require aircraft and propulsion systems that do not rely on carbon to propel itself through the air. So how do we stimulate all the brightest minds to get there?

Is part of the solution to having less air travel overall by restricting flying?

We are a customer-centric company and people want to fly. People want to travel.

Many see the aviation industry as the main contributor to emissions, and some are calling for people to fly less. Should people feel guilty about flying?

We don’t think you have to choose between seeing the world or saving the world. Let me tell you this: decarbonizing aviation is a great opportunity and we are focused on it and making real progress every day.

Does the company feel the pressure from the public to push this forward consistently?

We put pressure on ourselves. I get so many emails from our own people who care passionately. So we hear it from our employees and we hear it from our customers too.

Meet Fletcher:

  • She plays french horn in several genres of music, including classical and jazz, and dreams of one day playing in an orchestra.
  • Fletcher loves hosting dinner parties, from setting the table to cooking the food.
  • She is a big fan of Formula 1 car racing.

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