Sustainability in the Air
Sustainability In The Air
Is United’s aggressive approach to sustainability a model for the industry?

Is United’s aggressive approach to sustainability a model for the industry?

From the archives: A conversation with Scott Kirby, the CEO of United Airlines.

Welcome to the holiday edition of Sustainability in the Air, the world’s #1 podcast on sustainable aviation hosted by Shashank Nigam, CEO of SimpliFlying. Over the next couple of weeks, we will bring to you some of the finest conversations from our archives and add context based on the latest updates from the companies featured.

First up is our episode with Scott Kirby, the CEO of United Airlines, an airline that continues to set new standards in terms of their sustainability commitments and efforts. Since our episode with them—incidentally one of our earliest—they’ve made a number of major announcements that are worth noting.

Here are the key highlights of the conversation:

  • United’s sustainability achievements and investments in 2023 (0:25)

  • United’s strategy for net-zero emissions (6:37)

  • Carbon sequestration and carbon offsets (8:47)

  • On Sustainable Aviation Fuel (11:18)

  • United Ventures investment in future technologies (14:17)

  • United’s partnership with Boom (17:37)

  • Advice to CEOs moving into sustainability (33:25)

Keep reading for a quick overview of the episode.

1. Recent developments

United Airlines has significantly expanded its sustainability initiatives, with the United Airlines Ventures Sustainable Flight Fund SM now boasting nearly $200 million, supported by partners like American Express Global Business Travel and Aramco Ventures. This fund, launched in February 2023, focuses on increasing sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) supply, with over 60,000 customer contributions so far. The airline has also introduced Oscar from Sesame Street as their Chief Trash Officer to highlight their efforts in turning trash into SAF in partnership with Fulcrum Energy. Moreover, they’ve committed to purchasing up to 1 billion gallons of SAF from Cemvita, which recently opened a full-scale SAF plant. 

Collaborating with Boeing, NASA, and others, United is also testing the impact of SAF on contrails and emissions. Additionally, they’ve invested in Electric Power Systems for advanced electrified aviation powertrains. United’s broader environmental efforts include initiatives like the UAV Sustainable Flight FundSM, the Eco-Skies Alliance, and United Airlines VenturesSM, focusing on revolutionary sustainable aviation technologies.

2. The path to net-zero emissions

United Airlines aims for net-zero emissions through SAF, investing in sustainable technologies, and carbon sequestration. These solutions are still developing and need wider adoption for significant impact.

3. Carbon Sequestration instead of Carbon Offsets

United prioritises carbon sequestration over tree planting for carbon offsets, as the latter can’t scale sufficiently. Carbon sequestration involves extracting carbon from the atmosphere and storing it, seen as a more viable long-term solution.

4. Betting on SAF

United’s Eco-Skies alliance encourages corporate investment in SAF production. Although SAF is currently scarce and expensive, United is actively investing in SAF companies to boost supply and hopes for parity with jet fuel prices through increased production and government support.

5. The vision of United Ventures

United Ventures is collaborating with firms like ZeroAvia, Heart Aerospace, and Archer Aviation to electrify short-haul flights, acknowledging that long-haul flights will still rely on jet fuel due to battery weight limitations. In March 2023, United announced it will launch the first commercial electric air taxi route with Archer in Chicago.

6. Thinking supersonic

United’s partnership with Boom aims to develop a supersonic airliner running on 100% SAF, but faces challenges due to high fuel consumption and current limited SAF supply.

7. Advice to CEOs

Kirby highlights United’s commitment to doing the right thing, including sustainability, diversity, and customer care. He stresses the importance of CEO leadership in sustainability, continuous learning, and fostering industry-wide innovation.

Thanks for listening to Sustainability in the Air! Subscribe for free to receive our updates straight in your inbox.

‘Sustainability in the Air’ is the world’s leading podcast dedicated to sustainable aviation. Through in-depth conversations with top aviation leaders, we break through the clutter and provide a clear roadmap for a net-zero future.

Sustainability in the Air
Sustainability In The Air
Every week, Shashank Nigam, the CEO of SimpliFlying, talks to airline, airport, travel and technology executives to help make sense of the many paths to net zero, for an industry that is one of the hardest to decarbonize.
Whether you're a frequent flier, an airline executive or just love travelling, if you care about sustainable global travel, then welcome aboard.