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Delta's chief sustainability officer on what's important for the future of air travel: 'People don't want to make that tradeoff between seeing the world and saving the world'

"Everyone across the industry is trying to bring this solution to scale, because it's the single most important lever for net zero."

Delta’s Chief Sustainability Officer Amelia DeLuca

Photo Credit: Delta

When it comes to travel, Delta doesn't want you to have to decide between "seeing the world and saving the world" — that's the message from Delta's Chief Sustainability Officer Amelia DeLuca in a recent interview with The Cool Down.

Here's the context:

So with that elephant in the room, how does Delta's head of sustainability approach her task? 

DeLuca told us it's not about asking fliers to sacrifice traveling altogether. Rather, it's about giving next-generation travelers the confidence that Delta is making moves — big and small — to help the aviation industry become more sustainable, so that flyers can explore the world while preserving it for future generations.

🧑‍🍳 Prioritizing key ingredients

Over 90% of Delta's carbon pollution comes from jet fuel, so investing in sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is the airline's No. 1 priority.

"Sustainable aviation fuel is one of the most exciting things that the airline industry is working toward right now," DeLuca told TCD. "We're working toward it collectively, collaboratively. Everyone across the industry is trying to bring this solution to scale because it's the single most important lever for net zero."

This type of fuel is made from plant or animal materials — like corn or even municipal waste — instead of fossil fuels, so while "sustainable" may be a strong word, it certainly does have a lower carbon impact. DeLuca told us that last year Delta used about 3.5 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel on its journey to get to 400 million — or 10% of its conventional jet fuel — by 2030.

"If you're flying out of California, you likely have sustainable aviation fuel on your airplanes —  it's being used today. It's something we can do today," she said. And while it's not enough to bring us to net zero right now, she said Delta wants its customers "to know that this is the most important thing that the airline industry is doing." 

"But it's a whole new industry," she said. "It's going to take some time."

📈 Small tweaks = big returns

If sustainable aviation fuel is the Broadway hit for reducing jet fuel usage, "slowing down" is the tech crew working behind-the-scenes. Operational tweaks like simply slowing down an airplane trip by roughly 15 seconds can have an outsized positive impact, DeLuca told us.

"There's a lot that consumers don't see … every single day," she said. "We're really working with our aerospace engineers to understand those tradeoffs between making sure you go a little bit slower to save extra fuel."

Slight route adjustments can also have a big impact. "There's ways to navigate and work with air traffic control that allows us every single year to save 10 million gallons of jet fuel," DeLuca said. "Those are the real savings that we see today while we navigate the scale-up of sustainable aviation fuel." 

♻️ And that goes for products inside the cabin too

If you think finding an alternative fuel for the legacy aviation industry is tough, try replacing on-board cups with fully plastic-free paper ones — something other airlines, such as Alaska, have also been tackling. 

"You see [the cups] pretty much no matter where you sit in the cabin or where you travel," said DeLuca. But those little paper cups are "one of the more challenging things that we've done from changing a product spec."

Why? "It's very challenging to find a cup alternative that doesn't have the plastic liner that hits the regulations for the removal of single-use plastic — but stands up to hot, cold, and alcohol."

Delta is testing these cups in certain markets right now, "to make sure we truly have the right alternative in place." If so, they could eliminate 7 million pounds of single-use plastic every year — the weight of 1,300 pickup trucks, according to Delta.

Other behind-the-scenes changes the airline has made include:

  • Asking customers to pre-select meals and studying food and beverage consumption. This helps the airline avoid extra weight on the plane, thus reducing fuel use. 
  • Recycling water bottles to make the blankets used in the premium cabin. 
  • Eliminating paper flight manifests and going digital instead. This has saved an estimated 4,000 trees' worth of paper so far.

🎧 The customer is always right, except about headphones

"A couple of years ago [customers] started to tell us very clearly that environmental responsibility is one of the top drivers of their brand support for Delta," DeLuca said. And that wasn't something she took lightly.

"We know the conscious consumer is here," she said. "We've already been changing our onboard experience to reflect that we're moving away from single-use plastic, bringing circularity on board, and telling the story of the sourcing behind our products. Our role is every year we transport 200 million customers, but with that we also have the opportunity to tell them stories about what sustainability looks like, not just at the tailpipe of the airplane."

Sometimes that active listening also means active messaging — in this case, what to do about in-flight headphones. "The earphones are a really good example of trying to make sure that customers have a good experience on board, where sometimes then we find unintended consequences to that."

Watching back-to-back movies is one of the few enjoyable moments of air travel, but single-use headphones obviously run counter to Delta's sustainability goals. While the airline builds out its Bluetooth capability, "we're really trying to increase our messaging to take those [headphones] with you and use them on your next Delta flight."

🗺️ Show the roadmap

Delta has committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Pledges like this are important, but perhaps more so is the transparency around its path to sustainability

"Delta in particular is a trusted consumer brand," DeLuca said. "And that's why we want to make sure consumers know we have a plan … We talk about our progress against it and that we are committed all the way from our board down to our front line."

🔮 A look into the crystal ball

Aviation tech is changing as quickly as your anxious friend going through the security line. DeLuca said she is already starting to see more interest in talking about sustainability, especially "for people who are saying, 'I travel and I don't want to feel like I'm making an unsustainable choice.'"

"You just hear the topic of sustainability come up more and more frequently and in venues that traditionally I don't think it was there," she said. "And I think that's the only way we're going to get stuff done … But to really get it to that net-zero future, it's going to take all of us in all walks of life being part of that journey."

Winning with Gen Z is a particular focus for DeLuca. "We know in particular the Gen Z generation is really focused on experiences versus things. If we're going to get it right anywhere, we've got to get it right with Gen Z, because that's the group we need to keep with us on this journey, and they're the most vocal."

💚 Her "why" 

"I always say that aviation is with you on your worst days and your best days, especially those best days when you're moving to new places or you're going on new adventures or you're flying to a wedding or a loved one. Aviation gets you there," DeLuca told TCD. "Aviation has opened up the world to me in a way that I can't even explain. And then you layer on the fact that … I'm a mom of two kids who will inherit the planet from me.

"So when I got the opportunity to combine my love of the industry with really, frankly, my love of my children, that's where sustainability sits at the intersection of those two things." 

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