Pilots Have a Rare Perspective on Protecting Planet Earth

By ALPA President Capt. Joe DePete & Former ALPA President Capt. John Prater (Retired)


From our flight deck window, airline pilots have a rare perspective on the earth. We see the droughts, forest fires, and storms that are linked to climate change, but our view is also shaped by practices and policies that already allow us to contribute to a cleaner environment. Now, airline pilots are eager to do even more to protect our planet under the Biden administration’s new climate plan.


On every passenger and cargo flight, airline pilots play a critical role in reducing fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. In appropriate conditions, airline pilots taxi our aircraft to and from the runway without using every engine, and we reduce the use of aircraft auxiliary power units while on the ground. We also use technology-enhanced departure and arrival procedures to reduce distance and time traveled and fly at altitudes and speeds that optimize fuel usage. New and more precise navigation technologies also allow us to fly with reduced vertical separation to safely optimize fuel, time, and airspace capacity.


Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration and the airline industry are collaboratively advancing the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), which uses satellite-based navigation and surveillance. NextGen creates enhanced operating procedures that allow pilots to take more direct routes, reducing CO2 emissions while improving safety. In fact, the new technologies and procedures that airline pilots have helped develop often serve double duty by advancing sustainability as well as safety.


In these ways and many others, airline pilots are already taking on climate change. Moreover, we have advocated for aggressive goals to further reduce aircraft emissions, such as increasing average aircraft fuel efficiency each year by 1.5 percent and reducing net aviation emissions by 50 percent by 2050 as compared to 2005 levels.


Since 2006, the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuel Initiative—a coalition that includes the Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l, as well as airlines, government agencies, and energy producers—has worked to develop and deploy alternative jet fuels derived from renewable feedstocks and waste streams. Government policies to encourage the production of advanced biofuels will be helpful in meeting important and necessary global carbon reduction targets.


Given the global nature of our industry, U.S. pilots are also working internationally to share our expertise and experience in combatting climate change. Through the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations, we are sharing our perspective and experience with the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization as the agency develops recommendations for other nations to advance safe and sustainable policies that create a greener industry while stimulating economic growth.


As the vaccines that pilots are helping deliver show promise in getting us to the other side of COVID-19, our government must ensure that the airline industry is performing at full strength to fuel a strong recovery. Life during the pandemic has demonstrated our industry’s indispensable role in maintaining supply chains that bring medicine and meals and providing hope with the possibility of visiting family and friends again soon. Airline pilots understand that the passengers and shippers who trust us to ensure safety in the skies also expect us to help safeguard the planet.


U.S. airline pilots are already working to address climate change—and we are ready to continue to provide strong, knowledgeable leadership as the administration looks to decrease emissions and increase sustainability in the aviation sector. Together, government leaders, airlines, and aviation workers can collaborate to inspire more action to address climate change with inclusive and innovative solutions that also create jobs and strengthen the global economy.

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