Revolution, not just evolution: United relies on jet fuel today, but plans for carbon neutrality tomorrow

By Tom Bergeron
Chicago | Nov 27, 2019 at 9:15 am
Editor’s Desk

Most people are surprised to learn United Airlines has 16,000 employees in New Jersey, making it the state’s sixth-largest employer.

Others are surprised to learn how United is a huge technology company, although its implementation of CLEAR biometrics for passenger screening and its hugely successful connection-saver program should answer that.

But here’s something almost no one knows: United wants to be the leading sustainability company in the state.

That’s right. An airline. From an industry that relies on jet fuel. But maybe not for long. United President Scott Kirby — during a huge media event in Chicago recently — detailed how this seemingly impossible dream could be a reality. Why United is so eager to lead the way. And, most importantly, that United already has devoted another $40 million to the effort.

“It’s personal to all of us at United to talk about leading the sustainability revolution,” he said. “And we use the word revolution intentionally. When you hear a lot of airlines around the world talking about sustainability, I would classify what they’re doing, including us, as evolutionary.”

There’s another level, Kirby said.

“What United wants to do is revolutionary,” he said.

The company, Kirby said, is investing in the development of sustainable fuels. Do the math, he said: It’s the only way to get to carbon neutrality.

“We burn a lot of fuel flying aircraft,” he said. “And the only way to drive that carbon impact toward zero is through alternative fuels.

“United has been the leader in investing in new technology, in funding startups, at providing seed capital for new technology that can hopefully someday create alternative fuel sources that can drive us to net carbon-neutral on fuel.”

The company has had two big investments so far.

United invested $30 million in Pleasanton, California-based Fulcrum BioEnergy in 2015. A partnership that has evolved into the company announcing last December that it is building a biofuels plant in Gary, Indiana — near United’s corporate headquarters in Chicago.

United also has a partnership with Boston-based World Energy. The airline recently announced that it has agreed to purchase up to 10 million gallons of cost-competitive, commercial-scale, sustainable aviation biofuel over the next two years. The biofuel, which United currently uses to help sustainably power every flight departing its Los Angeles hub, achieves a greater than 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions on a lifecycle basis, the company said.

No flights with this fuel have taken off from Newark, United’s third-busiest hub, after Chicago and Houston. And it is a money-loser, Kirby said. But a loss the company is happy to take.

“We’re doing because we hope that (it) can become economically viable,” he said. “We’re creating investments that allow those entities to work on the technology to do the research and development, to drive those costs down so that it can become economically viable.

“Because of those investments, we actually represent over 50% of the total commitment to alternative fuels of all the airlines combined in the entire world. And we’re proud of that. And we were the first airline to commit to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by the year 2050. But the only way we can do that is through revolutionary change. Evolutionary change won’t get us there.”

United is not waiting for the revolution to come, Kirby said. That’s why the airline announced a new $40 million investment vehicle earlier this month.

“(It’s) dedicated to investing in revolutionary technology, supporting those entities, those individuals and those companies that are trying to create alternative sources of fuel that can drive carbon towards carbon neutrality,” Kirby said.

“We really want to drive a revolution in sustainability instead of just being content with evolutionary. We hope to drive a revolution in sustainability.”