Human-influenced climate change is the “defining issue for our generation to solve”, in the view of United Airlines chief executive Scott Kirby, who says his passion for the subject is behind the carrier’s attempt to become an industry leader on sustainability.

Speaking during a CAPA Live event on 10 March, Kirby explained that since becoming chief executive of one of the world’s largest airlines last year, he has “a platform and position where I can make a difference”, alongside the ability to influence “how people feel about aviation” as concern about the sector’s environmental footprint grows.

And in the months since taking over at United, Kirby has made clear his view that genuinely reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is the only way for aviation to meaningfully contribute towards humanity avoiding the most “dramatic” effects of climate change. 

He is therefore dismissive of carbon offsetting – “which is basically just planting trees” – describing it as a “fig leaf for a CEO to check a box, pretend that they’ve done the right thing for sustainability, when they haven’t made one whit of difference in the real world”.

Instead, in December last year United said it would achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, partly through investment in a process that strips CO2 from the air and deposits it underground.

United Airlines

Source: United Airlines

Kirby dismisses carbon offsetting as having little impact

Alongside that “direct air capture and sequestration” process, Kirby also cites “sustainable aviation fuels” as crucial to United’s achievement of net-zero emissions, amid a recognition that technological advancements such as hydrogen-powered or electric aircraft are unlikely to arrive quickly enough.

With those plans in place, “the conversation – when I have it with people in Washington DC and other places that actually understand climate change – completely changes their perspective of United”, according to Kirby. “It’s a real opportunity for us to lead.”

While he acknowledges that such a focus on sustainability will not please every stakeholder – particularly during the airline’s recovery from the industry’s worst-ever crisis – Kirby is unapologetic about the carrier’s direction.

“If you are a very short-term-oriented investor, worried about ‘what is RASM next quarter’, you don’t care about this,” he says. “If you’re a long-term investor, if you don’t care about it, you’re wrong.

“Either carrots or sticks, this is coming, and being able to lead is going to be better for our shareholders in the long term.”

Describing his personal “passion” for taking action on climate change, Kirby recalls that “in the [1990s] it was clear this was happening and it’s taken us far too long to accept the scientific reality”.

He describes the “dramatic tipping points that could happen” if no action is taken to address the issue, citing the example of “the change in the Gulf Stream, where it would no longer warm Europe”.

Such events would “fundamentally alter our societies and how we can live”, he says, adding: “And they’re essentially irreversible.”