It is no secret that the aviation industry is on a hopeful trajectory to decarbonize operations by mid-century. Even an otherwise motley ICAO Assembly declared a “long-term aspirational goal,” or LTAG, at the beginning of October. However, if you do not take practical steps (and put your money where your mouth is) to get there, even the most ambitious intentions will all come to naught.
European low-cost carrier easyJet has set itself apart with a wide array of partnerships to further the industry’s sustainability agenda. Last month, the carrier revealed an ambitious, science-based target aligned net-zero by 2050 roadmap.
Obviously, this did not just materialize from a general aspiration to decarbonize but came about through arduous work over the duration of a few years. Simple Flying was fortunate enough to have caught up with the airline’s Sustainability Director, Jane Ashton, at the recent World Aviation Festival held in Amsterdam and have a conversation about what goes into creating a net-zero roadmap.
Granular detail model
Jane Ashton has substantial experience in travel and sustainability, having worked in the field for close to 20 years, initially at First Choice Holidays and then serving as the Sustainability Director across the TUI Group for nearly a decade before joining easyJet in February 2020. Despite the obvious and unprecedented challenges that unfolded during the months that followed, the airline never put its net-zero agenda on hold.
“During 2020, there was a small group of airlines, including ourselves, working with the Science-Based Target initiative, specifically with WWF, Boston Consulting Group, and the International Council for Clean Transportation. We began to map what an airline trajectory needed to look like to stay in line with the Paris Agreement.”
“We’ve been modeling our net-zero pathway to understand in granular detail what it means for us every year. So we have created a flexible model that you can easily plug in conditions, such as if we get SAF mandates of a certain quantity, what does that mean? What does it mean if air traffic management improvements kick in at a certain date? What does that do to the model?”
Moving from traditional offsets to carbon removal
The focus of easyJet’s strategy is on new technology – once available – and the long-term ambition to achieve zero-carbon emission flying across the entire fleet. The airline says that through the adoption of a suite of measures, including zero-emission aircraft, it will be able to reduce its carbon emissions per passenger kilometer by 78% by 2050, compared to 2019 levels.
The UK budget carrier has also announced it will stop purchasing carbon credits to offset its flights from December and will not, as many other airlines, rely on traditional offsets to reach the final percentages of its 2050 net-zero target.
The emissions that cannot be reduced via other means will instead be mitigated through carbon removal technology, such as direct air carbon capture (DACC), a technology still in its infancy but gaining traction (and the scaling of which will be absolutely crucial if we are to succeed in keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.) easyJet has joined a coalition with, among others, Airbus in the support of its development.
Living document on zero-emission aircraft and engines
easyJet is betting big on hydrogen from around 2035 onwards and has entered collaboration partnerships with industry household names such as Airbus and Rolls-Royce to usher in the era of zero-emissions aviation. Meanwhile, despite the best of intentions from airframe and engine makers, there is no timeline guarantee. Ashton says that the strategy beyond 2035 is very much a “living document.”
“We have got assumptions as to at what point we’ll be seeing hydrogen aircraft enter the fleet, and also assumptions on the scaling of direct air carbon capture and storage – because we know that we will have to fly, even if partially, on jet fuel for some years to come.”
Of course, hydrogen commercial passenger air travel remains a hypothetical, and airlines are sometimes criticized for placing their hopes on the “technological myths” of the future. Aviation needs to start actively lowering emissions now and not simply wait for the decarbonization step changes to solve the problem on its behalf some time in the future.
Every kilogram of CO2 that we add to the atmosphere today will have to be retracted to make up for the warming we have already committed to with the carbon released since the beginning of the industrial revolution, hence the less we put out there, the better.
Indeed, easyJet also has quite an aggressive fleet replacement program. It has an order for another 134 Airbus A320neo aircraft, taking the total up to 167, as well as 33 A321neos, for a total of 43. Each neo (new engine option) aircraft is at least 15% more fuel efficient than its ceo (current engine option) predecessor.
Photo: Getty Images
Operational efficiency spurred on by software
easyJet also has a high degree of confidence in the contribution of operational improvements. While the airline has been working on this area for years (and has reduced its per-passenger kilometer emissions by one-third since 2000), available technology is now accelerating the progress. Among other measures, the carrier is working with fuel efficiency tools from OpenAirlines, with technology that sits on an aircraft and uses artificial intelligence on data feeds from every point of the journey.
Furthermore, the airline will equip its Airbus A320 family fleet with Airbus’ “Descent Profile Optimisation” (DPO) and “Continuous Descent Approach” (CDA) – fuel-saving and noise-reducing enhancements to the aircraft’s flight management systems.
The upgrade will be in place by the end of 2023 and will make easyJet the largest operator globally to use the two combined solutions. The airline says this will lead to an estimated annual carbon emission reduction of 88,600 metric tons, which is equivalent to driving an average car 16,173 times around the earth.
“I think the opportunity now is to embed and engage across the organization. Now we’ve got a plan, our focus is on delivery with all areas of the business working together towards that goal. We’ve actually got something concrete rather than a general aspiration on the net-zero, a pathway forward, which we believe is achievable.”