US airlines have committed to numerous initiatives in order to help the industry get to net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of this century.

Trade group Airlines for America (A4A), which represents the country’s top 10 passenger and cargo airlines, says on 30 March that US carriers will work with the government and other stakeholders to increase production of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), invest in electrification, revamp air traffic control, develop new airframe and propulsion technologies and support international agreements including ICAO’s 2016 Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA).

The ultimate goal is to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, A4A says.

Vapour trail emissions environment

Source: Max Kingsley-Jones/FlightGlobal

US airlines commit to net zero emissions by 2050

“We are proud of our record on climate change. But we know the climate change challenge our country and the world face has only continued to intensify,” says the organisation’s chief executive Nicholas Calio. “Today, we embrace the need to take even bolder, more significant steps to address this challenge.”

A4A and its member carriers are committed to working in partnership across the commercial aviation sector and beyond to help advance and deploy commercially viable technology, operations, infrastructure and SAF to meet these ambitious climate goals,” the group says.

The announcement comes after numerous of its airline members including Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, JetBlue Airways and Fedex, among others, have announced wide-ranging carbon reduction programmes including increasing SAF use, implementing carbon capture and sequestration technologies, and  carbon offsetting schemes. 

A4A’s declared commitments — which it hopes to see reflected in upcoming infrastructure legislation — include a ramp-up of SAF production to make 7.6 billion litres (2 billion US gallons) available to US carriers by 2030. That would require a massive 84% average increase in production for each of the next 10 years.

Sustainable aviation fuel, which is made from renewable sources such as forest floor debris, old clothes, cooking oil or municipal garbage, can reduce life-cycle carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by up to 80% compared to conventional jet fuel. More than 40 carriers worldwide have begun using this type of fuel to help shrink their carbon footprint.

In November, international industry trade organisation IATA urged governments to promote the fuel as a critical tool to reduce emissions, calling it a “game changer” in the industry.

“The commercial aviation sector needs the SAF industry to scale up rapidly so that it can become a reliable provider of exponentially larger quantities of reasonably priced fuel to airlines,” A4A says.

Currently the biggest barriers to increased SAF adoption are their limited supply and high cost. SAF accounted for just 0.1% of all jet fuel used in 2019, and it is three to five times the price of conventional fossil-based jet fuel. 

Tax credits of up to $2 per gallon, grants and loan guarantees are the path to get there, A4A adds. 

During pandemic-plagued 2020, numerous airlines retired older gas-guzzling aircraft in favour of newer types and models that will reduce trip costs by also reducing fuel burn.

“Given that airlines are already driven to be highly fuel efficient, pushing technology, SAF, operational and infrastructure advances even farther to achieve net-zero is a massive undertaking,” says A4A’s Calio.


“Evolutionary and revolutionary” airframe and engine technology advancements are also integral to reaching the airlines’ emissions target, A4A says. it calls on US space agency NASA to assist in accelerating research on alternative propulsion systems including electric and hybrid systems that can reduce emissions and noise.

Last December the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the first time issued greenhouse gas (GHG) standards for new aircraft which it said ensure “international consistency”, giving US manufacturers a “level playing field” with foreign competitors. 

The rule mirrors ICAO’s international standards and recommended practices for certification of aircraft CO2 emissions, announced in 2017. It limits the amount of  CO2 and nitrous oxide (N2O) commercial airliners and business jets can emit beginning in 2028. At the time, environmentalists had blasted the rule as insufficient, and that it does not go far enough to ensure commercial airliners contribute to lowering GHG emissions across the board.

A4A says air traffic control is another critical area of aviation that needs to be overhauled in order to contribute to its climate sustainability goals, with the FAA taking a leading role in improving implementation of performance-based navigation (PBN) procedures that can enable more efficient routing and introducing more modern avionics to “enable greener operations”.

“To ensure successful implementation of this high-priority technology initiative, the FAA should establish and fund a program management office (PMO) to oversee the programme elements such as procedure design, community outreach, and the suite of controller ‘tools’ that enable the management and sequencing of aircraft, and aircraft equipage,” A4A says.

The trade group also wants to expand electrification of airport ground operations, and support airports looking to make these kinds of investments with grants. “Government funding to support the acquisition of [ground support equipment] and enabling airport infrastructure would help accelerate its deployment,” A4A says.

Finally, the lobby group calls on government bodies cut out bureaucracy and make it easier for the industry to achieve sustainability goals.

”It is imperative that the US federal, state and local governments implement supportive policies and programmes that enable innovation, scale-up, cost-competitiveness and deployment in each of these areas, while avoiding the implementation of policies that would limit the aviation industry’s ability to invest in emissions-reducing measures,” A4A says.