Sustainability in the Air
Sustainability In The Air
Alaska Airlines’ multi-faceted approach to achieving net zero by 2040

Alaska Airlines’ multi-faceted approach to achieving net zero by 2040

In this episode, we talk to Diana Birkett Rakow, SVP of Public Affairs & Sustainability at Alaska Airlines.

In this episode of our ‘Sustainability in the Air’ podcast, Diana Birkett Rakow, Senior Vice President of Public Affairs & Sustainability at Alaska Airlines, speaks with SimpliFlying CEO Shashank Nigam and shares how the airline is planning to achieve net zero emissions by 2040 – a full decade ahead of the industry’s target.

Here are the key highlights of the conversation:

  • Alaska Airlines’ 5-part path to net zero emissions by 2040 (3:16)

  • Employee engagement and incentives for sustainability (7:35)

  • SAF initiatives and partnerships (11:53)

  • Customer engagement in SAF (28:14)

  • Future aircraft technologies and partnerships (33:40)

  • Alaska Star Ventures and investments in startups (37:47)

  • Growth vs. sustainability debate (42:26)

  • Rapid Fire! (48:45)

Keep reading for a quick overview of the episode.

Why the 2040 target matters

Alaska Airlines’ sustainability strategy is consistent with its overall business approach, to delivering value for its four stakeholders: guests, employees, communities, and owners. The airline recognises that sustainable practices are essential to ensuring the long-term well-being of its stakeholders, and has been actively reporting on its environmental impact since 2009.

In 2020, Alaska Airlines set its sights on developing new, more ambitious targets for 2025, which cover three key areas: carbon emissions, waste, and ecosystems (including water).

While the 2025 goals represented an important milestone, Alaska Airlines recognised the need to set long-term targets to drive meaningful change. The airline decided to aim for net zero emissions by 2040 instead of the conventional 2050 target, which seemed too distant to spur immediate action.

To reach the 2040 net-zero goal, Alaska Airlines has developed a comprehensive five-part path that prioritises:

  1. Operational efficiency: Optimising the use of aircraft and improving fuel efficiency through measures like using ground power, single-engine taxiing, AI software for route optimisation, and regular engine wash programs.

  2. Fleet modernisation: Introducing more fuel-efficient aircraft, such as the Boeing 737 MAX, to replace older, less-efficient planes.

  3. Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF): Increasing the use of SAF to reduce emissions.

  4. New technology: Investing in and adopting new propulsion technologies to decarbonise operations.

  5. Carbon credits: Using high-quality, verified carbon credits only as a last resort to close any remaining gap to net zero.

The five-part path serves as a guiding light to achieving Alaska Airlines’ net zero 2040 target. As Rakow puts it:

“The way the [five-part] path is structured requires taking action now, while also investing in and making sure that we’re supporting and enabling longer term technology… So it enables us to have the pragmatic side of action now and then the innovation side of ‘let’s create the future that we need’.”

5 takeaways from the conversation

1. Promoting the use of SAF

Alaska Airlines has formed strategic partnerships to advance the use and production of SAF.

For example, in 2020, the airline collaborated with Microsoft to purchase and uplift SAF, offsetting Microsoft’s business travel emissions by transferring carbon credits. 

In 2022, the airline also established a partnership with Microsoft and carbon-transformation company Twelve to advance SAF production and usage. Twelve is building a facility in Washington State to produce synthetic fuel using recaptured CO2, renewable energy, and water. The SAF produced by Twelve will be used by Alaska Airlines, with the airline claiming the Scope 1 credits and Microsoft using the Scope 3 credits. This innovative partnership demonstrates Alaska Airlines' commitment to collaborating with partners across industries to drive the growth and adoption of SAF as a key solution for reducing aviation emissions.

Moreover, as a founding member of the Aviators Group within the Sustainable Aviation Buyers Alliance (SABA), Alaska Airlines is also working to pool knowledge, demand, and action to create a positive flywheel for the SAF market, adds Rakow.

2. Ensuring employee engagement through incentives

To enhance employee engagement in sustainability initiatives, Alaska Airlines has introduced carbon intensity targets in their employee bonus program. Some examples of the initiatives undertaken through these targets include pilots practising single-engine taxiing, flight attendants encouraging guests to lower window shades on a hot day, and ground crew ensuring the efficient use of preconditioned air. 

By tying 10% of every employee’s annual bonus to these carbon intensity targets, the airline incentivises all staff members to actively contribute to sustainability efforts.

3. Investing in future technologies 

Alaska Airlines is actively investing in future technologies to support its sustainability goals. Rakow discusses the airline’s partnership with ZeroAvia, a hydrogen-electric powertrain manufacturer, to develop and test hydrogen fuel cell technology for regional aircraft. 

As part of Alaska Airlines’ partnership with ZeroAvia, the airline has transferred ownership of one of its retired Bombardier Q400 (Dash 8) turboprop aircraft to the company. ZeroAvia is currently developing the technology to retrofit the Q400’s engines and power it using hydrogen-electric propulsion.

To further support sustainable technologies, Alaska Airlines set up its corporate venture capital arm Alaska Star Ventures in 2021. Recently, Alaska Airlines launched a new partnership with UP.Labs, to create and develop companies that can provide solutions to some of the most complex problems the airline is facing. These challenges may or may not be directly related to sustainability, but the solutions developed could have co-benefits for running an efficient operation, adds Rakow.

4. Engaging customers in sustainability

Rakow recognises the critical role public perception and adoption play in the success of sustainability initiatives. She emphasises the need to build broad public awareness and support for new sustainable technologies in order to normalise them and create demand. 

In late 2023, Alaska Airlines launched a pilot program aimed at providing a sustainability-linked alternative to the traditional year-end mileage run. Typically, mileage runs are often undertaken by loyalty program members who are close to achieving a higher elite status tier and seek to accumulate additional qualifying miles through last-minute flights. 

Seeing a chance to redirect this behaviour towards more sustainable outcomes, Alaska Airlines introduced a promotion that rewarded guests who purchased SAF credits with elite qualifying miles. For every $100 spent on SAF credits, guests received 500 elite qualifying miles, up to a maximum of 5,000 miles. The program met with an enthusiastic response, with uptake exceeding the airline’s expectations.

Encouraged by the results of the pilot program, Alaska Airlines recently integrated SAF credit options directly into the booking flow on its website. By making this option a seamless part of the booking process, the airline aims to normalise SAF and educate a wider audience about its importance in the future of aviation. The airline has also partnered with technology platform CHOOOSE to enable travellers to offset their emissions through credible, nature-based offsets or by purchasing SAF credits. 

5. Growth vs Sustainability 

Rakow points out that Alaska Airlines serves many communities that are heavily dependent on air travel, particularly in the state of Alaska, where only 3 out of 19 communities served by the airline are accessible by road. She underscores the critical role air travel plays in these communities, enabling people to visit family, access healthcare, participate in school sports, and conduct business.

Rakow believes that economic sustainability is necessary to effectively address environmental sustainability in the aviation industry. With its potential acquisition of Hawaiian Airlines (pending regulatory approval) Alaska Airlines will induct wide-body aircraft in its fleet for the very first time. The expansion will expand both airlines’ networks, leading to growth in business and possibly the underlying carbon footprint.

She highlights the shared commitment of Alaska and Hawaiian Airlines to their communities as both airlines service areas where air travel is critical, and emphasises the need for responsible growth.

“We need to grow responsibly, and we need to use that growth to power a more sustainable future for aviation.”

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‘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.