The SkyTeam airline alliance has just completed its first Sustainable Flight Challenge, in which member airlines demonstrated or tested initiatives in the air and on the ground to help reduce their carbon emissions, with the results to be shared across the industry. The challenge, which required participants to maximise decarbonisation measures on specific flights between May 1 and 14, attracted 16 of the alliance’s 18 members, and delivered outcomes including services part-powered by large volumes of sustainable aviation fuel and weight-saving operational measures such as the use of new, lightweight aircraft tyres. The concept of the Sustainable Flight Challenge was developed by The Bold Moves, a group of employees within SkyTeam member airline KLM, who were inspired by a 1934 air race between London and Melbourne, designed to demonstrate the possibilities of long-range commercial flights. SkyTeam adopted the KLM idea and expanded it to encourage all its member airlines and partners to participate, reports Tony Harrington. Meanwhile, SkyTeam member Saudia has undertaken what it claims is the world’s longest net positive flight through a carbon offsetting partnership with CarbonClick and aviation consultancy SimpliFlying.
“The climate crisis is the greatest challenge facing our industry, and there’s no time to lose,” commented SkyTeam on the Sustainable Flight initiative. “As airlines, we need to reshape the future of air travel for generations to come. Together, we are committed to further reducing our carbon footprint by finding new ways to cut emissions, make our fleets more efficient and better care for the world we connect. We’re challenging ourselves to innovate, reaching for new heights to find as-yet undiscovered solutions that we can put into practice across our industry.”
As originator of the Sustainable Flight Challenge, KLM operated two flights from Amsterdam as part of the project, one a Boeing 787-10 widebody service to Edmonton, Canada, the other an Embraer E190 regional jet to Porto, Portugal, each incorporating more than 50 efficiency measures, including a 39% blend of sustainable aviation fuel. Weight-saving initiatives included the use of artificial intelligence modelling to predict the amount of water needed for each flight, lightweight cargo pallets and nets, and optimised aircraft loading to ensure the best centre of gravity, to improve flight aerodynamics and reduce fuel burn by 1.5-2%. Pilots also collaborated with air traffic controllers to identify the most efficient air routes, while on the ground, business class passengers were asked to pre-select meals in order to minimise uplift of catering which would not be used, while transport companies delivering freight were asked to use vehicles powered by electricity or biodiesel fuel.
Air France also operated two flights part-powered by SAF, and performed with new, more fuel-efficient jets – an Airbus A350 from Paris to Montreal, using a 16% SAF blend produced by TotalEnergies, and an Airbus A220 from Paris to Lisbon with a 30% SAF mix, both well above the mandatory 1% blend required on all flights from France, and aligned with the airline’s target of 30% less CO2 emissions per passenger kilometre by 2030, compared to 2019. The airline said both flights were also supported by initiatives including single-engine taxiing and optimised routes, each achieving CO2 reductions of close to 45% compared to routine services. It foreshadowed greater use of AI to optimise flight paths, and use of autonomous tractors to help decarbonise baggage transport at airports.
In the US, Delta Air Lines used a Boeing 737-900ER – the most fuel-efficient aircraft type in its fleet – to operate a sustainable flight from its Atlanta home base to Salt Lake City. The plane was part-powered by 400 gallons of SAF, provided by Gevo, and the largest volume of sustainable fuel uplifted on a flight from Atlanta. The aircraft was also equipped with new main landing gear tyres which reduced weight by 100 pounds (45kgs), while at both ends of the journey the flight was serviced by 100% electric ground equipment used to transport baggage and fuel. Delta has pledged that 25% of its ground service vehicle fleet will be electrically powered by the end of 2022, up from 20% now, and rising to 50% by the end of 2025. Other features of its sustainable flight included recyclable packaging for beverages and no disposable plastic.
Another SkyTeam member, Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia), as part of the Sustainable Flight Challenge, has claimed the world’s longest net positive flight through a carbon offsetting partnership with New Zealand-based CarbonClick and aviation consultancy SimpliFlying. The airline said 346 tonnes of carbon emissions were offset from a six-hour, Boeing 787-9 flight between Jeddah and Madrid. The flight also incorporated the first in-flight ‘sustainability lab’, in which passengers contributed suggestions on how to reduce the environmental impact of flying. To offset the flight’s emissions, CarbonClick will apply the airline’s contributions to the generation of wind-powered electricity in India, enabling wind turbines to be powered for 26 days, and delivering sustainable electricity to communities in Bhuj, in the western state of Gujurat.
SkyTeam said the pressures presented by Covid-19 meant that not all of the alliance’s member airlines could participate in the inaugural Sustainable Flight Challenge but expressed confidence that more would join in future years, with outcomes shared not only across the alliance, but further afield. “The industry as a whole will benefit from the challenge,” said SkyTeam. “That’s because everything we learn we will share open source. It’s our commitment to finding new ways to reduce our industry’s footprint and bring the future of sustainable air travel forward. What’s more, we hope to broaden participation in years to come.”