Release #: Vol. 84, No. 8
October 01, 2015

Pilot Commentary: Doing Our Part to Help ‘Green’ Airlines Stay Safe and in the Black

By Capt. Kathi Hurst (United)
Director, Energy & Environment,
ALPA Air Safety Organization

In what was viewed as a seminal event for aviation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a proposed finding on July 1 that greenhouse gasses (GHGs) from aircraft emissions cause or contribute to air pollution. Capt. Joe DePete, ALPA’s first vice president and national safety coordinator, delivered ALPA’s views on the subject at an EPA-sponsored public hearing (see September, page 24). ALPA has recently filed comments with the EPA concerning the proposed finding and acknowledged, among other things, that the airline industry has an important role to play in reducing GHGs.

Over the years, the airline industry has become increasingly aware of its obligation to operate in an environmentally friendly and sustainable manner. Airline customers—passengers and cargo shippers—want their carriers of choice to reduce their carbon “footprint” and to limit the effects of GHGs on the environment. Protests by environmentalists opposed to air travel, particularly in Europe, have helped to sharpen the focus of airlines around the world on the responsibility that they have to be as “green” as practicable.

In our individual roles as stewards of our planet, I believe that we have a responsibility to do our part to limit air pollution—and all other kinds of pollution for that matter—to the maximum practical extent using available procedures and technologies. However, as we informed the EPA, airlines must be allowed to do so in a way that maintains economic stability, promotes sustainability, and enhances energy independence. Airline pilots’ most fundamental concern after safety of flight is economics—airlines need to be profitable in order to provide the career paths, salaries, benefits, and working conditions that we expect from our employers. For that reason, ALPA opposes any and all artificial means of reducing GHG emissions via financial penalties, taxes, and fees on our already overtaxed industry.

An important part of my job is to stay abreast of and counter any concepts for reducing jet fuel consumption and noise that might compromise safety. As just one example, we recently discussed with industry representatives their ideas for reducing aircraft noise by creating significantly steeper glide paths and displacing thresholds to bring aircraft in over residential areas at higher-than-normal altitudes. The potential safety issues with those kinds of measures are readily apparent to pilots. However, there most certainly are safe ways for airline pilots to contribute to greater fuel efficiency and lower emissions, which include conducting single-engine taxi operations, choosing speeds and altitudes that burn less fuel, and using optimized profile descents, to name just a few.

The member states of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)—which include the U.S. and Canada, with the full participation of the EPA and the FAA—are presently developing an aircraft carbon dioxide (CO2) certification standard through that organization’s Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP). ALPA’s interests in the creation of that standard are represented through its membership in the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA), which holds permanent observer status at ICAO. As we informed the EPA, ALPA supports international collaboration via CAEP on a plan for reducing GHGs that applies to airlines around the world, rather than unilaterally instituting higher emission standards in North America that would hurt our employers’ ability to compete globally. It’s worth noting that ALPA, International is the only pilot union in the U.S. and Canada that has IFALPA membership and, thereby, influence at ICAO.

The airline industry has an enviable record of environmental accomplishments that, arguably, no other such energy-reliant industry can match. According to Airlines for America, U.S. airlines improved fuel efficiency from 1978 to 2014 by more than 120 percent, resulting in 3.8 billion metric tons of CO2 savings. Airlines have reduced GHG emissions through such measures as

  • continued development of more efficient engines over a number of generations of engine technology. Today’s new engines produce seven times more thrust than early jet engines while burning only half the amount of fuel.
  • precision navigation capability that enables direct, shorter routings instead of using airways.
  • alternative, sustainable fuels that are being developed and used.
  • aerodynamic improvements to increase aircraft efficiency, such as winglets and sharklets.
  • use of continuous descent approaches.

There is certainly more work to do, but airline pilots can and should be proud to work in an industry that is achieving cleaner air and skies while maintaining the highest levels of safety. 

This article is from the October 2015 issue of Air Line Pilot magazine, the Official Journal of the Air Line Pilots Association, International—a monthly publication for all ALPA members.