Many U.S. air carriers miss their first climate goal

In 2009, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the global trade association for cargo and passenger air carriers, adopted three goals for reducing CO2 emissions from aviation:

(1) an average improvement in fuel efficiency of 1.5% per year from 2009 to 2020;
(2) a limit on net aviation CO2 emissions after 2020 (carbon neutral growth); and
(3) a 50% reduction in net aviation CO2 emissions by 2050, relative to 2005 levels.

Through their trade association, Airlines for America (A4A), most U.S. airlines also adopted the same three goals. While the industry intended for 2020 to be included in the calculation of fuel efficiency improvements, the COVID-19 pandemic will significantly affect this year’s values. With this in mind, it’s worth taking a look at how each individual passenger airline fared with improving fuel efficiency through 2019.

Figure 1 below shows the fuel efficiency of seven A4A member airlines in 2009 and 2019, and the average annual improvement achieved. Operations data for 2009 and 2019 were obtained from each airline’s financial statements, as well as the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The data includes both mainline and regional air carriers.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Fuel efficiency improvements (2009-2019) for Airlines for America member passenger air carriers

The good news is that every airline improved their fuel efficiency during the time period. However, only two out of the seven airlines achieved the target of an average 1.5% per year improvement in fuel efficiency over the decade. On average, A4A passenger airlines’ fuel efficiency improved by 1.3% since 2009. While these carriers did bring newer aircraft into their fleets, they did not retire older ones as quickly. The average age of the mainline aircraft fleet for American, Delta, and United at the end of 2019 were 11.0, 14.9, and 15.6 years, respectively, based on information in their annual reports. This indicates that there are a number of aircraft in excess of 20 years old in each of their fleets. Most of JetBlue’s fleet from 2009 (which had an average age of 4.3 years) are still flying in 2019. While these aircraft were new and fuel-efficient at the beginning of the 2010s, they are no longer the most fuel-efficient now.

It can be argued that it was easier for Southwest to reach fuel efficiency improvement goals than other airlines because they had an older fleet at the end of 2009, with more than a third of its fleet having an average age of at least 18 years. At the end of 2019, the average age of the Southwest fleet was 12 years, and plans are already in place to retire the older Boeing 737-700 aircraft in their fleet.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say anything about the other major U.S. airlines that are not members of A4A. In fact, these airlines seemed to fair much better with increasing their fuel efficiency over the last decade. As shown in Figure 2, Spirit Airlines improved its fuel efficiency by an average of 2.0% per year, based on financial disclosures. Based on data available from the DOT for 2009 and 2019, Allegiant, Frontier, and Sun Country improved their fuel efficiencies by more than 1.5% per year. They achieved a collective average fuel efficiency increase of 2% per year by introducing the newest generations of narrowbody aircraft as replacements for older, less fuel-efficient types.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Fuel efficiency improvements (2009-2019) for non-Airlines for America passenger air carriers

As mentioned above, the COVID crisis has had a deep effect on airline industry operations. Looking ahead, this year is expected to have atypical fuel efficiency measurements. Since the start of the pandemic, airlines have been flying aircraft with lower passenger load factors, which have a negative impact on fuel efficiency. Due to depressed demand, Alaska, American, and Delta started early retirement of aging, less cost-efficient aircraft, which is also expected to reduce fuel burn and CO2 emissions.

Other efforts to “right-size” operations, such as altering the number of departures for each route and the specific aircraft operating each route, will also have an impact on fuel efficiency. Although eliminating service to less profitable airports has become more difficult due to the requirement that airlines maintain service to all destinations in their route network prior to COVID-19 in order to receive Federal aid, DOT has offered waivers to the rule.

Data from 2020 will reveal not only to what extent the pandemic wreaked havoc to airlines’ fuel efficiency, but how it may affect progress towards meeting the remaining two climate goals. While aircraft retirements are taking place, many airlines have pushed back new aircraft delivery schedules in order to shore up their financial positions. However, I don’t believe that the aviation industry will renege on their environmental promises because of the current situation. JetBlue has started to offset the carbon emissions from domestic flights, a promise made in January 2020. But instead of starting to think in 2030 or 2035 about changes needed to achieve 2050 targets, the planning needs to start now.