Can aviation ever be ‘clean’? Four industry insiders give their view

By Dirk Singer / March 17, 2023

According to United Airlines Chief Sustainability Officer Lauren Riley, when she started with United four years ago, her department was “somewhat like the special project in the corner.”

What she does today however is key to how the airline operates, “I am in the boardroom every quarter talking about the integration of sustainability and business strategy.”

United’s focus on sustainability was one of the topics discussed at this year’s SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas, as part of a panel called “Flying Green – Can Aviation Be Truly Clean.”


Chaired by ZeroAvia founder and CEO Val Miftakhov, the panel included United’s Lauren Riley, Kirsten Poon of Edmonton Airport (YEG) and Phoebe Wang of Amazon’s Climate Fund.

Here are some of the key points to come out of the session:

1 – We need “everything on the table right now”

Val Miftakhov started the session by pointing out that the last major change to power plants happened 50-70 years ago with the advent of jet turbine engines. Since then, however, improvements have been incremental:

“Yet, we are projected to grow traffic 3x in the next 30 years or so. And if we just keep going like this, 3%, 2%, 3% year on year. It is not going to cut it. Especially when other industries are getting better and better, for example the power sector and electric cars.”

Lauren Riley agreed that airlines have been “in the business of incremental. We save fuel burn, we save costs, we save labour, we make more money.” Instead, what is needed to achieve more radical transformation is “a strategy of everything on the table, right now.” That everything on the table strategy has led to United Airlines investing in a range of different technologies and industry players.  

This includes investments with multiple Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) companies, into the hydrogen-electric powertrains being developed by ZeroAvia, in Heart Aerospace’s hybrid-electric regional aircraft and in Archer’s eVTOLs.

However, while change is needed quickly, the issue is that these technologies will take time to develop.

According to Lauren Riley, “we need time to mature some of these early-stage solutions, like alternative fuels like hydrogen that we can actually scale in a global capacity and have the infrastructure that we need worldwide.”

This comes as Riley emphasised United’s commitment to becoming 100% green without recourse to carbon offsets because “we cannot simply cut a check and invest in somebody else planting trees without modifying how we run our business and claim that we care about sustainability.”

2 – We need to work with today’s assets

Lauren Riley said that with United’s recent order with Boeing for over 700 aircraft, “that infrastructure isn’t going anywhere; those assets are fully baked.”

In other words, the aircraft flying now will largely be the aircraft still flying in 2050. That, in turn, means Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) is key. 

It’s a drop-in fuel compatible with today’s aircraft, has up to 85% less emissions on a life cycle basis, and offers the same experience for the passenger.

Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch, United Airlines’ new Chief Trash Officer

United is the biggest airline investor in SAF, and recently unveiled a campaign featuring Oscar the Grouch to bring to life how household waste can be turned into Sustainable Aviation Fuel.

3 – Airports can become innovation labs

According to Edmonton Airport’s Kirsten Poon, “we call ourselves a living lab.” Kirsten Poon saw the potential for medium-sized airports like YEG to become test beds for new technology.

An airport like YEG is “big enough to be meaningful when it comes to international air services. But also small enough, where you’re not disrupting major operations.” As a result, YEG is trying to create a platform for innovators and technology companies, where they can come into the airport ecosystem and test their technologies.

YEG last year signed an agreement with ZeroAvia for the development of a hydrogen-fuel infrastructure at the airport so that YEG can become a future centre for hydrogen-electric flights in Canada. The airport is also becoming a leader in electrification, by building the world’s largest airport solar farm – Airport City Solar.

Finally, airports have a role to play in introducing the public to new technologies. For example, YEG has signed a partnership with Toyota Canada for the supply of hydrogen-electric Toyota Marai cars. Though these will initially be used by the airport, YEG is looking to see how their use can be spread to other airport partners, including taxi companies.

Initiatives like that, where passengers sit in a hydrogen-electric car, help familiarise them with the technology. It’s then no longer so strange to be sitting in a hydrogen-electric powered aircraft.

As Kirsten Poon felt that, “as a taxi goes into the city, it makes hydrogen less scary.”

4 – Government incentives help bring VCs on board

Investing in sustainable aviation technology is not like investing in an app or a piece of software. It could be 10+ years before there is any kind of financial return.

As Phoebe Wang from the Amazon Climate Fund put it, “climate change is imminent, and it’s everyone’s responsibility, but VCs are return driven.”

Phoebe Wang said that this is why Government programmes like the Inflation Reduction Act in the USA and the ATI Programme in the UK (in which ZeroAvia is a participant) are so important. They provide the right regulatory atmosphere and incentives to make the sector more attractive to venture capitalists.

Lauren Riley agreed that even six months ago the economics of sustainable aviation were difficult. The solutions that existed were not cost-effective. Today, however, things are very different:

“Then comes the inflation reduction act, and you’re in a position where you can take the credit associated with sustainable aviation fuel, and you can add to that the credit associated with carbon capture, and then you can add to that the credit associated with green hydrogen and all of a sudden it becomes this game of stacking policies.”

The result has been that the interest in these investments has completely shifted. “The amount of innovation and the enthusiasm that we’re seeing from the venture capital side and the amount of new technologies coming out of the startup incubators has been really phenomenal.”

5 – Consumers want companies to do the right thing

Amazon’s Phoebe Wang said that climate change was now being taught in elementary schools, with her seven-year-old daughter coming home and asking, “what’s our carbon footprint?”

According to Phoebe Wang, new generations of consumers are very conscious about climate change, and so the pressure on businesses will only increase as time goes on.

In fact, there are signs of increased consumer awareness right now. YEG’s Kirsten Poon said that the airport has customers calling the taxi centre insisting on zero-emission vehicles. 

Then there is the employment angle. Employees want to work for companies that are seen to be doing the right thing.

For ZeroAvia’s Val Miftakhov, this has resulted in his hydrogen-electric startup being able to recruit from some of the brightest and best in the industry. This includes experienced team members who have come in from legacy companies like Boeing, Airbus and Rolls Royce:

“For us, it’s been a significant draw of talent. We’re able to secure the best out there, just because of that.”

Want to know more? Our Sustainability in the Air podcast features interviews with both United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby and ZeroAvia founder Val Mitakhov.

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