GoEco Recommends: Airlines that Minimise Environmental Impact

Before the pandemic hit in 2020, aviation had been growing at around 5% per year. The sector is notorious for its heavy environmental impact, accounting for around 2% of all human-induced CO2 emissions; an enormous amount when you consider that is about the same as Germany’s total emissions.

We don’t believe in extremes here; we know that everyone wants (and needs) to escape to sunnier climes, or snowy peaks every now and again. And of course international business necessitates air transport. But there are ways to make your travel habits more sustainable, be they business or pleasure.

Where possible, choosing to take trains or drive will lower the carbon footprint of your trips. Aim for fewer, longer holidays, and fly economy; carbon emissions are spread across more people this way than in premium classes. Minimise layovers because emissions are higher when taking off and landing, and consider the option to offset your carbon emissions for a small fee. This is a service most airlines now offer, some even footing the cost themselves.

All of the airlines we recommend here are members of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) – committed to the collective goal of achieving net zero in the aviation industry by 2050. The IATA aim to achieve this through four primary pillars, namely:

  • The use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF)
  • Development of new and improved technologies incorporating sustainable hydrogen/electric solutions
  • Investing in offsetting and carbon capture technologies
  • Changes to infrastructure and operational efficiencies (more information about the pillars is available here).

When deciding on our top picks, we considered each of the pillars outlined by the IATA as well as anything extra around waste management, single-use plastics and in-flight food. Of all areas improved technology has the greatest potential to reduce emissions, so this was our primary focus.

Our Top Picks…

Virgin Atlantic

Company: Virgin are one of the leaders when it comes to sustainability in aviation, and have won multiple awards for it. Their transparent 2019 sustainability report considers their scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions, recognising the importance of targeting aircraft fuel and carbon efficiency, given it accounts for 99% of scope 1 emissions and 71.2% of total company emissions.

To this end, Virgin were the first airline to use Lanzatech jet fuel, a sustainable alternative, on a commercial flight in 2018. They are also upgrading their fleet to newer, more efficient and quieter aircrafts, retiring their remaining four-engine aircrafts in 2020 following the introduction of 30% more efficient A350s Airbuses in 2019. As for operations, Virgin are continually watching onboard weight, optimising aircraft cleaning and maintenance, and advising their pilots how to fly more efficiently. Virgin’s overall reduction in emissions in 2019 remained ahead of the IATA target of improving fuel efficiency by 1.5% per year from 2009.

Beyond the four pillars, Virgin reduce flight waste by providing amenity kits on request rather than as standard, plastic bags have been removed from their headsets, their wooden stirrers are FSC-certified and they don’t hand out straws on their flights, instead carrying a small amount of paper ones for those who ask for it. They even consider the food they serve on-flight, with 63% of their flights worldwide meeting their sustainable food criteria.

Product: Direct routes offered* by Virgin:

London Heathrow to:

  • (Asia) Dehli, Islamabad, Lahore, Mumbai, Hong Kong and Shanghai
  • (Africa) Cape Town, Johannesburg, Lagos
  • (Caribbean) Antigua, Barbados, Grenada, Havana, Montego Bay – Jamaica, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Tobago
  • (Israel) Tel Aviv
  • (USA) Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Orlando, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington DC

Manchester to:

  • (Asia) Islamabad
  • (Caribbean) Barbados, Montego Bay
  • (USA) Atlanta, Boston, Las Vegas, New York, Orlando, Los Angeles

Edinburgh to:

  • (Caribbean) Barbados
  • (USA) Orlando (From March 2022)

Belfast to:

  • (USA) Orlando

Singapore Airlines

Company: despite significant impact of the COVID pandemic, Singapore Airlines (SIA) emphasise their continued commitment to improve the sustainability of their business in their 2021 sustainability report.

Between 2011 and 2021, SIA achieved their goal of a 15% reduction in electricity consumption and 30% reduction in the waste produced from their buildings, and report remaining on track to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

They are committed to upgrading their fleet to more efficient aircrafts; their current passenger fleet has an average age of just 5.1 years. However, their freighter aircrafts do average 17.3 years, so we would like to see this reduced. In 2011, SIA joined the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (SAFUG), which focuses on accelerating the development and commercialisation of SAF. They have since begun to integrate the use of SAF into their supply chain.

SIA optimise flight patterns, educate their crew on fuel efficient practises such as Reduced Engine Taxi-In and the Continuous Descent approach, and work closely with air traffic management (ATM) experts to reduce congestion. Additionally, they are improving Zero Fuel Weight (ZFW) – the total weight of the aircraft including surplus fuel, but excluding necessary fuel – to reduce the weight of the aircraft, subsequently reducing emissions. .

Beyond the four pillars, in 2017 SIA launched their ‘From Farm to Plane’ campaigns, in which they intend to use more sustainable and meatless ingredients, as well as local produce, in their in-flight meals. The airline has now removed all plastic straws, replacing them with paper ones.

Product: Direct routes offered* by SIA (excluding Scoot routes):

London Heathrow to:

  • (Asia) Singapore

Manchester to:

  • (Asia) Singapore
  • (USA) Houston

Delta Airlines

Company: in February 2020, Delta committed to becoming a carbon neutral airline and starting in March 2020, the American company committed $1 billion over the next 10 years on its journey to mitigate all emissions from its global business going forward. Moreover, they were the was the number 1 airline named among America’s Most Sustainable Companies by Barron’s in 2020.

Delta do not directly mention the IATA pillars in their sustainability reports, but their strategy aligns with them and their targets nevertheless. Also recognising SAF as a primary short – medium term solution to reduce emissions, Delta have committed to using 10% SAF by 2030, and go a step further by promising to ensure their SAF feedstock is not derived from unsustainable sources such as palm oil. In 2020 Delta accelerated their retirement of older aircrafts, removing 200 from their fleet. These planes will be gradually replaced by a 25% more efficient model, and the success of this is already evident in 6% more fuel efficient miles in 2020 compared to 2019.

Beyond this, in the short-term Delta are working to seek weight-saving measures on their aircrafts and retrofit older aircrafts with mechanisms such as ‘winglets’ (which reduce drag) to increase efficiency. Longer term, Delta are looking to get involved in ground-breaking carbon sequestration technologies like Direct Air Capture, in which machines draw carbon dioxide out of the air and permanently store it in deep geological formations, or use it to create products containing carbon dioxide.

Despite the financial impacts of COVID, Delta have also committed over $30 million to purchase of carbon offsets to uphold their carbon neutral promise.

Product: Direct routes offered* by Delta:

London to:

  • (USA) Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, Orlando, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington

Manchester to:

  • (USA) Atlanta, Loa Angeles, New York, Orlando

Glasgow to:

  • (USA) Orlando

Edinburgh to:

  • (USA) Boston, New York

Belfast to:

  • (USA) Orlando

Dublin to:

  • (USA) Atlanta, Boston, New York

Air France KLM Group

Company: as one of the biggest European airlines, KLM’s sustainability efforts are commendable. Their 2019 sustainability report shows that they have 30% lower CO2 emissions per passenger km compared to 2005 as well as 32% less CO2 emissions produced by ground operations compared to 2018, accounting for 100% of scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions. Additionally, they mention their purchase of more efficient aircrafts, reduction in noise pollution and reduction in non-recyclable materials.

KLM have outlined clear goals to reach by 2030: 50% reduction in emissions per passenger km compared to 2005; 50% less non-recycled waste compared to 2011; and zero ground emissions.

KLM have an average aircraft age of 12.1 years, again one of the older fleets. However, in 2020 they retired their older aircrafts (Airbus A380) two years earlier than planned and will be replacing them with more efficient models. Whilst KLM view SAF as a promising future solution they highlight the current issues with limited supply. Their SAF from SkyNRG meets strict sustainability criteria and is certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials. They are also members of working groups and support research projects aimed at the creation of a SAF market.

Regarding operations, KLM are continuously working to reduce aircraft weight by adapting and reducing onboard supplies such as trolleys and drinking water – they requirement for which they review regularly to ensure excessive amounts are not carried. Flight routes are optimised and pilots are trained in fuel efficient procedures.

Once again, there is little mention of pillar three. As for carbon offsetting, Air France has been offsetting 100% of their domestic flights since 1st January 2020. KLM also offer individual and corporate customers the chance to offset their emissions on a voluntarily basis.

Product: Direct routes offered* by KLM / Air France

KLM flies Amsterdam to:

  • (UK) Aberdeen, Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Doncaster, Sheffield (via a Flybe codeshare), Durham Tees Valley, East Midlands (via a Flybe codeshare), Edinburgh, Exeter (via a Flybe codeshare), Glasgow, Humberside, Inverness, London City Airport, London Heathrow, Leeds, Bradford, Manchester, Newcastle, Norwich, Southampton (via a Flybe codeshare)

Air France flies Paris to:

  • (UK) Aberdeen, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, London Heathrow, Manchester

•Please be aware available flights via the routes described may be impacted by the COVID pandemic.

We do our best to research and find the most environmentally-friendly companies to recommend at GoEco. However, if you have any suggestions that we might not know of, or disagree with any of our recommendations, please get in contact: hello@goeco.co.uk. We always want to learn more about the companies with the potential to save our future!

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