Q&A: JetBlue to reach net zero 10 years ahead of industry

Sara Bogdan
Head of Sustainability & ESG at JetBlue

There can be no doubt that environmental consciousness is still very much at the forefront of aviation, with ambitious targets set to reduce the industry’s global impact. Airlines are doing all they can to minimize their carbon footprint and advance sustainability, while also trying to ensure customer satisfaction.

In the US, JetBlue is proving to be a trailblazer in achieving that delicate balance, with exciting initiatives and ambitious plans for the future. Where the majority of airlines are focused on achieving net zero emissions by 2050, aligned with the Paris Agreement, JetBlue has a more robust goal, committing to achieving this milestone by 2040. With sustainable approaches to everything from the ever-present topic of SAF introduction and fuel efficiency to the materials used in the creation of in-flight cutlery, JetBlue is at the forefront of making air travel more sustainable. 

As an i6 customer, we were fortunate to catch up with Sara Bogdan, Head of Sustainability & Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) at JetBlue. A key architect of JetBlue's sustainability roadmap, Sara provides unique insights into the airline's commitment to reducing its environmental footprint, fostering social responsibility, and embracing sustainable practices.

Read on to discover how JetBlue is redefining sustainable air travel with its commitment to eco-friendly aviation…

Q: How is JetBlue currently helping to accelerate the transition to net-zero emissions?

Great question! One of the things I like to point out is that environmental action is not new to JetBlue; it’s something that's helped us in our strategy and in making the industry-leading commitments that we have. Our mission is to inspire humanity, and from the beginning, over 24 years ago now, we have thought about our customers first and the communities in which we operate. 

As a result, we started thinking seriously about sustainability before many other airlines, and that has served us well. We set the foundation and got our leaders to understand why, from a business standpoint, we should be concerned about climate change and the risks it poses to our business. 

We've always seen ourselves as doing things a little bit differently at JetBlue and that has lent itself well to sustainability - and leading the industry with a history of firsts, including setting our net zero goal back in 2020. It was obviously a challenging year for the airline industry - but it was also one of a lot of climate action for JetBlue and a real proof point that this is something that's core to our growth and something that we wanted to stay focused on. 

We set our goal at the end of 2020 with our signing of the Climate Pledge. Today, it's a commitment to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2040, which ended up being about 10 years before the rest of the airline industry - ten years ahead of the Paris Agreement. We know this is an extremely challenging goal, but we believe that stretch goals will result in the greatest action. We would never criticize any net-zero goal, but for us, 2050 felt pretty distant. We see our role in the ecosystem of airlines and other aviation partners as really pushing the boundaries. 

Of course, 2040 is still a ways from now, so we have a series of aggressive interim goals, including our science-based target to cut our emissions in half on a per-seat basis by 2035, as well as a goal to convert 10% of our jet fuel to sustainable aviation fuel on a blended basis by 2030.

We have a long way to go, but we are demonstrating clear year-over-year growth in our SAF usage and a series of other commitments, including the digitalization of our ground operations for more fuel efficiency, and i6 is a key part of making that possible for JetBlue.

Q: Another thing to note is that JetBlue will not be passing the extra costs associated with SAF onto customers - is that correct?

That's right. We've always viewed at JetBlue that reducing our impact is just a smart business decision - irrelevant of any costs that go with driving this transition, if it'sabout protecting our business, protecting our growth, we see that as a strategic advantage.

It does help that we have robust fuel efficiency measures that bring financial benefits, and we’re able to find ways of offsetting some cost premiums associated with sourcing SAF. But our goal is delivering great service and low fares, and sustainability will always be part of that.

Q: In terms of progress, could you maybe tell us a little bit about any planned fleet improvements and JetBlue’s investment in SAF?

Image Credit: JetBlue

Despite airlines having different strategies, we have the same tools in our toolkit, and it starts with efficiency. We want to ensure that we're introducing the newest fuel-efficient aircraft, and they're substantial improvements. The average next-generation aircraft brings about a 20% or so improvement in fuel efficiency, so that's important. 

But equally important is retiring the older aircraft that are less efficient. Being a younger airline, we already benefit from a newer, younger fleet. But we are taking tangible steps, such as retiring our Embraer 190 fleet in favor of the Airbus 220. We’re seeing a 30-40% improvement in fuel efficiency per seat, which is considerable from both an economic and carbon standpoint.

Next is operational efficiency, and this is where i6 technology comes into the mix. We need to know that we're not wasting a drop of fuel, and that needs complete accuracy across the whole supply chain. Digitalizing processes, efficient routing, fuel-saving procedures, infrastructure improvements - these all contribute to our plan to fine-tune our operation, and that’s critical. 

The next lever is SAF, or sustainable aviation fuel - renewable jet fuel that drops right into aircraft and reduces emissions on a net basis by about 80%. Today’s SAF is based on HEFA technology - it's the fats, oils, and greases as feedstocks that make the SAF being delivered today. One day we hope to see future SAF feedstocks and technologies being produced, and then eventually hydrogen or electric power in the next generation of aircraft technology. We’re active in accelerating these game-changing low-emissions aircraft technologies with JetBlue Ventures, but we're not making any assumptions or requirements today to meet our goals or requirements based on that technology.

Of course, currently with SAF, its supply and cost issues are the problem. On the positive side, we’re early adopters of the alternative fuel and have seen real growth since we first took delivery. JetBlue started flying regularly using SAF in 2020, and we have essentially doubled the uptake in our operation each year since. We just about doubled SAF in our operation in 2023 versus 2022, and our goal for 2024 is to do that again. We’re getting close to 1% of our total fuel being SAF, which is still well above the industry average. So, while we fully recognize we have a long way to go, I also like to reflect on how far we've come in a short time.

Q: Have you seen any new or increased government support to help scale SAF production and delivery?

In the US, we benefit from a host of different tax incentives and different programs that have brought down the price of SAF, which is considerable. It’s also because of these federal and state programs that drive SAF to be delivered in those regions. It's why we currently have three different SAF producers that are delivering into our operation all based in California, which provides considerable incentives when you layer the California programs on top of the federal ones.

But those centers of SAF delivery are also a real proof point of how effective these incentives can be and how fuel providers will go to where it's the most economical. What we take from this is that while yes, there is still a price premium today that's significant, the government support makes it palatable when you layer on these programs. 

Q: How do JetBlue's sustainability and fuel management teams work together to reduce emissions? 

We work very closely with partners from across the organization, and for good reason. One of the things we announced as part of our science-based target a year ago was a road map on how we're going to reach our goals together. We recognized that in terms of net-zero goals, about half of the savings are expected to come from SAF, and the rest mostly comes from efficiencies that require every team to be involved, so our internal partnerships are critical.

From a fuel management perspective, I'd say there are a couple of different applications. One is to work closely with the different teams that influence fuel efficiency. We operate a Sustainability Task Force within the organization which includes our entire senior leadership team. We've also identified key leaders in the organization who influence something related to sustainability, whether it be the Head of Fleet, Head of Fuel Purchasing, or Chief Pilots. With that group, we're constantly tracking, reporting on, and finding new initiatives related to efficiencies from fuel management. 

The work we’re doing with i6 is a perfect example too. We’ve implemented a digital approach to fuel management in Boston Logan Airport, using i6 tech to improve fueling efficiency and move away from manual, paper-based processes in our operations. That, in turn, leads to increases in data accuracy, letting us see what’s happening in real-time. We’re excited to be implementing that technology in other JetBlue locations in the US to replicate that success.

The other work lies with the procurement of SAF. We work hand-in-hand with our fuel team, negotiating any particular SAF contract which is treated like any other conventional fuel contract. Our goal is to have a portfolio of SAF companies - today, we have three that are delivering; we have another three for future off-take, and we're constantly looking for more. 

Truly, every initiative is impactful. When you have such ambitious goals, no singular solution or initiative will get us to net zero - we have to think in every direction. And while we wait for the build-up of the SAF market, there's a lot we can do right now. 

Q: Can you please explain what JetBlue is doing in terms of making the cabin experience more sustainable as well?

We don’t necessarily talk about this a lot because if you're a consumer thinking about the environmental impact of an airline, the first impact you might think of is carbon emissions associated with the combustion of jet fuel. But from our customers’  perspective, they don’t see the fuel. Waste, on the other hand, is extremely visible, and it's an obvious indicator of how much an airline is thinking about sustainability, if they see a surplus of disposable products, or if the airline isn't making any attempt to recycle or divert products from landfills. 

Image Credit: JetBlue

This is a really difficult problem, given how quickly you have to turn over an aircraft to be ready for its next flight and some of the limitations involved. But we've made a lot of progress over the last couple of years in removing a lot of single-use plastics. For example, we offered a snack box that was wrapped in a plastic film that was unnecessary - we were able to ensure the box was appropriately sealed but without requiring the plastic wrap. In our Mint (Premium) cabin, we used to set blankets and pillows wrapped in plastic on every seat. We were able to find an alternative solution and introduced washable packaging that's reusable, which is now the norm and saves a meaningful amount of plastic.

These little things add up and ultimately matter. I think there's still a lot more to do, but we've gotten a lot of good feedback from our customers. 

Q: Lastly, how can the industry move towards net zero - in your case, by 2040, and also for others aiming for 2050?

We are moving towards it - the ambition is there across the whole industry. As competitive as we are sometimes, this is something we all realize as an industry we need to succeed in.

A key challenge is that we don't actually manufacture planes or fuel, so we have a lot of calls to action for many different stakeholders like fuel providers to grow the supply of SAF. Part of that is the government stepping up with even more pricing incentive programs and grant programs, which we've seen a great response to. 

Air Traffic Control modernization is also a really big opportunity: we projected around 10% of our emissions savings can come from ATC improvements in the long term. Here in the US, there are ATC initiatives that will bring efficiency, savings on fuel, airspace congestion, and improved on-time performance. The success of this work is critical for meeting our sustainability goals as well. Also, customer engagement does play a big role. We believe our customers love to travel, but also care about the environment, and that sense of corporate responsibility feeds into the JetBlue brand.  We’ve set up a platform to allow our customers to contribute to the purchase of SAF; more than we're already buying on our own. 

We're taking this work incredibly seriously. We see how critical this is in terms of sustaining our growth and ability to operate into the future. We are also extremely vocal that, as airlines, we will do everything we can on our end, but we cannot do it alone.

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