Heading into 2022, business aviation leaders have been encouraged about progress that has been and is being made on the sustainability front. But at the same time, industry leaders are aware that much work remains to be done not only in the advancement of initiatives such as sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) but also in attracting the buy-in of aircraft operators.
During the most recent NBAA-BACE in Las Vegas last October, the leaders of NBAA, GAMA, and IBAC formally unveiled a new sustainability pledge: net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050. This builds on a series of goals the industry collectively established in 2009 to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2050, increase fuel efficiency by 2 percent per year from 2010 to 2020, and achieve carbon-neutral growth from 2020. Well on its way to making those earlier marks and, with a number of new technologies in the offing, the leaders of the associations expressed confidence that the new, bolder target could be reached.
Getting there will require advancements on multiple fronts. In the short term, SAF, coupled with carbon offset credits and book-and-claim, are viewed as the most immediate steps to get there. The book-and-claim process allows customers who wish to use SAF but are not in an area where it is available at the pump (in the U.S., mainly West Coast locations near SAF production facilities) to purchase the fuel and receive credit for it under the various emission accounting programs. The fuel is then dispensed into and ultimately burned by another aircraft elsewhere.
However, much of the business aviation community appears unsure. A JetNet IQ survey released during the National Air Transportation Association’s (NATA) Aviation Business Conference in November in Miami found that when asked whether they would seriously consider flying with SAF in the next 24 months, just 10.4 percent of the respondents in North America said they would “strongly agree” while another 20.4 percent said they “somewhat agree.” Moreover, 25.4 percent in North America said they would “strongly disagree.”
In Europe, which has been viewed as a leader on the sustainability front, the numbers appear only slightly better, with 11.5 percent saying they would “strongly agree,” 21.2 percent “somewhat agree,” and 17.3 percent “strongly disagree.”
With strongly and somewhat agreeing depicted on a chart in the color blue, JetNet IQ creator and president of Rolland Vincent Associates Rolland Vincent remarked, “The blue isn't as blue as I think any of us might want it to be, or some think it should be.” Vincent also observed that the differences between the geographical regions “aren’t as stark” as people might have believed.
However, while he noted “I don’t think we can embrace [SAF] quickly enough,” he also conceded that supply is an issue and overall “there’s a lot of work to do as an industry.”
In fact, one of the early adopters in the SAF arena, California-headquartered Clay Lacy Aviation, has seen a slow but growing demand from operators. Scott Cutshall, the company’s senior v-p of development and sustainability, told attendees at AIN’s Building a Sustainable Flight Department forum in Dallas in November that Clay Lacy began carrying the fuel in April at its Southern California FBOs and has since sold less than 10,000 gallons.
When the FBO began to offer SAF, “we started getting calls. And people have a lot of questions” but “It hasn't started to translate into purchases until the last few months.”
While Cutshall added, “We haven't seen the volume of or uptake that we were originally hoping for,” he did express optimism that there will be an uptick this year as more operators budget for it. “I think we're going to start to see greater adoption.”
Helping that is the fact that the price differential is narrowing. By November, the price differential was 56 cents more per gallon than conventional jet-A in Van Nuys for its 30 percent SAF blend.
NATA president and CEO Timothy Obitts, speaking at his association’s Aviation Business Conference, underscored the importance of adoption. “On [reducing carbon] emissions, sustainable aviation fuel is a silver bullet to help us.” Noting discussions surrounding fears of SAF costing too much, Obitts said, “that is a narrow-sighted way to look at it.” SAF has “much higher” value, he said, noting the perception of business aviation globally and the flight-shaming that occurs.
Ford von Weise, director and global head of aircraft finance at Citi Private Bank, clearly spelled out the perceptions issue during Corporate Jet Investor Miami 2021 ahead of the NATA conference: “We are a huge, monstrous target. Why? Because the individual carbon footprint of every one of our clients is outsized. It's huge. Why else? Because we are fat cats, supposedly.” It doesn’t matter the reality if perception casts this shadow over business aviation.
He further warned that business aviation organizations face significant perception, regulatory, financing, and other risks if they don’t build a sustainability plan into their business model, and he noted his own institution is evaluating how it looks at risk. A piece of that is climate, environmental, and social risk management, he said and called SAF a key part of the solution to these risks.
As for the regulatory front, Europe and the U.S. alike are moving towards broader environmental mandates with similar goals and an array of potential taxes, incentives, and research projects under discussion, according to GAMA director of government affairs Marc Ehudin, also speaking during the AIN sustainability forum in Dallas. Ehudin pointed out that Europe is developing a "Fit for 55" proposal that calls for a reduction in net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030 with an ambition of being a climate-neutral continent by 2050. It hopes to achieve this through mandates, one of which would involve a carbon tax that would begin at the equivalent of $1.78 per gallon of fuel for business aviation in 2023 and continue from there.
Meanwhile, the UK is looking at its Jet Zero plan to achieve net-zero for aviation by 2050. This includes a flexible outlook, with multiple solutions, international leadership, and partnerships. In the U.S., stepped-up funding for a number of research programs has been floated, as well as initiatives to promote the expansion of SAF.
From a fuel provider's perspective, Lindsey Grant, manager of general aviation in the U.S. for Phillips 66, noted the steep investment required from the fuel makers, including logistics, tankering, and transportation, but she added, the industry needs to show a commitment to accepting the product. A lack of interest over cost worries “is not going to help incentivize producers to produce it. And until you’ve got that incentive there’s going to be a premium with it.”
She echoed other sentiments that companies looking to lower their carbon footprint should be particularly interested in using SAF. “You are not going to get the benefit of the claim [of lowering an organization’s footprint] without paying that additional premium.”
Darren Fuller, v-p of business development for business aviation at World Fuel Services, agreed, telling attendees at the AIN sustainability forum in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, that supply remains a big impediment to wider adoption and that “operators need to make big public commitments to SAF—this is required for investment in SAF production.”
Even when SAF supply rises it still won’t be available at every airport, so Fuller said operators will need to use book-and-claim as a strategy to reduce their carbon footprint.
Obitts, who additionally spoke during the AIN sustainability forum in September in New York, said the goal is to expand annual U.S. production from less than two million gallons currently to three billion gallons by 2030, and then 100 percent of business aviation's turbine fuel needs by 2050. This is critical to meeting the industry’s sustainability ambitions, he said.
“We’ve made big progress in engine and aircraft technology and flying aircraft efficiently, and one of the key components that remains is the introduction of SAF into the supply chain; that puts business and general aviation over the top,” added Keith Sawyer, Avfuel manager of alternative fuels, who also spoke at the New York forum.
Participating in the AIN forum in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in December, 4Air COO Nancy Bsales advised that business aviation operators can “set small goals now—such as committing to buying sustainable aviation fuel equating to 5 percent of your total fuel uptake—and then increase it later,” she told the attendees. “Even just one SAF uplift is a step.”
Meanwhile, 4Air president Kennedy Ricci stressed the use of carbon offsets as a more immediate solution as SAF, electric, hydrogen, or other sustainable options become widely available. Speaking during AIN’s Dallas forum, Ricci expressed the belief that “Each one of these technologies will have a place….[and] an incremental benefit that will play a role in 2050.”
But with the limits in availability, offsets are the biggest tool available for carbon-neutrality, he said. While more SAF will be available, a growth of flight hours will necessitate more offsets.
Use of carbon credits is particularly important because carbon is only a portion of the industry's warming impact. “We can neutralize that. We can look at carbon offsets today as a method to negate that impact,” he said. “But that’s not the end goal. Today offsets should be part of the solution, but ideally, by 2050 it’s something we shouldn't need to use.”
Ricci acknowledged criticisms that the industry needs to do more than offsets and said that’s where SAF becomes central to operations. “Sustainable aviation fuel doesn't have to be all of your fuel burn. Even 2 to 5 percent of your fuel burn sends a strong demand signal to producers of sustainable fuel.”
Beyond SAF, AIN’s Building a Sustainable Flight Department forums have focused on other initiatives. Gulfstream director of demonstration and corporate flight operations Scott Evans, who spoke at the Fort Lauderdale event, said, “SAF is definitely one of the operational considerations to lower emissions, but it’s not the only one. Operators can also fly at optimum altitudes and speeds, especially when there are no passengers on board. They can also operate at minimum weights, in part by eliminating unnecessary items on board the aircraft and curbing fuel tankering. Other measures include minimizing taxi time, reducing APU usage, and keeping the aircraft clean to lessen drag.”
Cutshall, who spoke at multiple forums, provided advice on a range of activities that flight departments can take to demonstrate sustainability and he too advised that organizations can start small and build up from there. And he highlighted the advantages: ”We’re starting to see interest in sustainability from potential customers,” he said. “Some of them have started asking if we have a sustainability plan in place. When we answer yes, many drill down even deeper by asking how we can reduce their Scope 3 [indirect] emissions. So it really is becoming a competitive advantage for us.”
Stewart D’Leon, NBAA director of environmental and technical operations, outlined his association's new accreditation program, which is now open to applicants. Under development for three years, the audit-based program is designed to promote sustainability.
AIN is continuing its series on Building a Sustainable Flight Department with the next event to be held on March 30 in Los Angeles. For more information, see https://marketing.ainonline.com/sustainability.