A Historic Step Toward Sustainable Aviation

You may be surprised to learn that air travel is already efficient. In fact, a flight between New York and Los Angeles achieves the equivalent of about 80 miles per gallon per passenger. Airplane manufacturers, such as Boeing and Airbus, prioritized reducing fuel consumption because jet fuel is the number one expense for airlines, and they have achieved great success in doing so.

However, travel demand is rising faster than annual efficiency improvements (5 percent passenger growth vs. 1.5 percent efficiency gains). Air transport emissions are projected to triple within the next three decades, surpassing automobile emissions. Unlike buildings and cars, aircraft cannot replace fuel-burning technology with zero-carbon technology.


That’s why at Carbon War Room, a Rocky Mountain Institute business unit, we are focused on the decarbonization of aviation fuel, especially since doing so can reduce CO2 emissions by up to 80 percent. Despite the biofuel industry being relatively nascent, we have access to several sustainable feedstocks, including waste oils, plants grown on marginal lands, and cover crops. These biofuels are also certified by both governments and aircraft manufacturers.

However, even with these positive developments, biofuels are not yet cost-effective for airlines. This becomes even more challenging when oil is cheap, as it has been for the last 18 months. But we look at solving the cost barrier as a huge opportunity, and one that could be decisive for the longevity and success of the aviation industry. In figuring out how to overcome the price-premium issue, we decided to build a program that relies on airports taking the lead in accelerating the deployment of biofuels. We refined the model with our partner SkyNRG, a global market leader in the blending, distribution, and sale of sustainable jet fuel worldwide.


These efforts have led to a groundbreaking partnership between the Port of Seattle, SkyNRG, and Carbon War Room to investigate long-term financing mechanisms that could supply all airlines at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac) with sustainable aviation fuels. Sea-Tac is the first airport in North America to initiate this step to provide an airport-wide sustainable aviation fuel supply for all routine airline operations.

Currently, biofuel supply agreements in the U.S. are made through expensive individual contracts between producers and airlines. While the goal is cost parity with conventional fuel, competitive pricing for delivered sustainable fuel has not yet been achieved. We are also a long way from reaching published industry goals for biofuel adoption. Our partnership aims to help sustainable aviation fuel go from an alternative product used by a few select airlines, to a standard product that is used by all airlines at the airport. That would be a game changer for the aviation industry.

We will work with Sea-Tac to evaluate funding mechanisms to cover the cost difference between sustainable aviation fuels and conventional fuels. The long-term ambition includes strategizing with decision makers regarding locally sourced fuel and future regional economic investments, identifying supply routes for the sustainable aviation fuel, and ensuring that any alternative fuels used at Sea-Tac are truly sustainable.


These kinds of efforts, alongside the International Civil Aviation Organization’s global market-based measure, can help the industry reach the global goals defined by the COP21 Paris Agreement. Also, by integrating the fuel directly into the on-airport fueling infrastructure, at an airport-wide blend ratio, this initiative will send a strong and consistent demand signal to the sustainable aviation fuel industry, which will boost investor confidence and catalyze industry growth.

Ultimately, as we work to resolve the challenge at the airport level, entrepreneurs, businesses, and researchers will complement our initiatives by focusing on innovations at the operational and technological level. These combined efforts can help to ensure that aviation plays its part in keeping the world below a 2-degree temperature rise.

Image courtesy of iStock.