Exclusive Expert Interview: Delta Air Lines on Sustainability in 2020 and beyond

Read our exclusive interview with Stephanie Zhu, Manager, Sustainability & Climate Change at Delta Air Lines where we unpack how Delta is holding its course during the 2020 pandemic, championing sustainability to ensure longevity.

“sustainability is part of everyone’s job.”

‘Thanks for joining us today, Stephanie, for this interview in which we explore Delta’s leadership in sustainability.  Let’s start at the top: Delta has a very comprehensive sustainability strategy, spanning all three pillars of sustainability.

Where does this passion and willingness to change come from? Is this a leadership directive or pressure from customers and investors?

Thank you, Julia, for recognizing Delta for our sustainability efforts. I’m looking forward to sharing some insights on our sustainability strategy and commitment.

We are fortunate at Delta to have passionate leaders who see sustainability as a top priority and a long-term commitment. As a result, in February 2020, we made an announcement to invest $1 billion over the next 10 years toward achieving carbon-neutrality by addressing all of our emissions from March 1, 2020, forward. And, despite the pandemic, we remain absolutely committed to this goal.

Our employees have also been instrumental in furthering our sustainability story. We launched Green Up, an employee-led business resource group, about 2 ½ years ago, and it has been the fastest-growing such group at Delta. Our employees are committed, enthusiastic advocates for sustainability and really live the mantra that “sustainability is part of everyone’s job.” Green Up focuses on new ways Delta and our people can make a difference in environmental sustainability, and they’ve led the way in thinking about how we can further reduce waste on our corporate campuses and even onboard our aircraft. The group also works to raise the visibility of sustainability among our broader employee base – last December we hosted world-renowned conservationist Jane Goodall at our headquarters to inspire our employees and talk to us about sustainability’s role in our future.

Our strategy also extends beyond the environmental pillar and encompasses social and governance. Since 2013, we have been using carbon offsets to cap our emissions at 2012 levels, and we’ve purchased and retired more than 14 million offsets. We’ve made efforts to also identify projects that have a tie with the places we work and serve, in addition to ensuring that the local communities receive benefits that align with many of the 17 UNSDGs.


Sustainability Natives demand information and action

At Arvensis Partners, we believe that the ‘S’ of our industry – Safety, Security + Service – could be joined by a fourth, namely Sustainability. In the case of millennials, who are not only digital natives but perhaps also sustainability natives, they have the modus operandi of challenging the status quo before they engage with a brand. They want to know information like ownership models and how the company performs with respect to environmental stewardship. Does Delta drive sustainability passion with an eye on this generation becoming the next environmentally conscious business & leisure traveller?

It’s important to allow the next generation of customers and employees a seat at the table. As sustainability natives, they are very informed about and invested in climate action. They know what they want and what they are looking for.

We make it a priority to be transparent, by providing people with information on our footprint and by giving them a way to join us and take action at delta.com/co2. Delta also sets goals that are well ahead of industry requirements, like capping our emissions at 2012 levels, which continually advances our industry-leading and voluntary efforts.

It is important to focus on future customers, but it is equally crucial for our business to recruit and retain the next generation of employees who will continue making our airline sustainable and also advancing sustainable aviation practices globally.

Would you say that creating, executing and, crucially, communicating a solid sustainability strategy has helped Delta to differentiate itself and create customer loyalty?

Absolutely. We know that customers make decisions based on what products or brands align with their own values, and they want to know that companies are taking climate action.

Communicating our long-term commitment to sustainability is a way for us to show customers we are committed to protecting our environment while also creating human connections around the world. Our customers shouldn’t have to choose between exploring the world and protecting the world, that’s why we continue our journey to make air travel sustainable for our planet’s future.

That manifests itself in different platforms: our annual sustainability report, social media campaigns, participating in conferences and forums, and building a delta.com/co2 carbon calculator that allows individual customers to educate themselves on the emissions associated with their flight and ultimately act by choosing to offset those emissions.

Our corporate customers have also been crucial here. Many of these companies have sustainability goals that align with ours, and they have employees who are travelling on Delta who want to understand what we are doing. Being able to articulate our goals and strategies allow us to work together to make an even greater impact. 


Customers identify with values of the brands they engage with

Let’s dive into the environmental side: Delta has committed investment of $1bil over the next 10 years to mitigate all emissions of the business. 98% of your emissions are from the aircraft and only 2% from real estate and other areas. Can you describe to our readers how you are setting out to achieve a completely net-zero business? What are the components you are working with, such as carbon offset, alternative fuels, fleet management, AI / ML for flight planning & operation, light weighting, etc.

We’re looking at all of it. In order to achieve our goal, Delta as a whole, needs to pull every lever, and we need to do it in partnership with industry and other stakeholders. This is not something we can or intend to do on our own.

Replacing older aircraft types is currently the number-one way we are improving our fuel efficiency and emissions at the moment. This year, we’ve permanently retired many of our least-efficient aircraft and as a result, we’ve been able to see fuel efficiency improvements on an available seat mile (ASM) basis despite COVID.

We know that sustainable aviation fuels are going to be key to decarbonizing within our sector, and the focus needs to be on getting that fuel at scale as its lifecycle emissions can be up to 85% less than conventional jet fuel. We’re working with partners, fuel suppliers, other airlines, government and broader industry to get enough fuel to make an impact and get costs to a more competitive price with conventional jet prices.

Research and development into new technologies and looking at operational improvements that can be implemented today will also be a key part of helping reduce emissions in both the short and long term.

And offsets. While offsets are outside of aviation sector emissions reductions, we do see them playing a role in our climate impact in the short term because SAF and new technologies will not be available overnight. Carbon offsets can help bridge that gap as a way to support climate action now, while working to scale up SAF and invest in new technologies that will bring our aviation emissions down in long term.

Emissions are the number 1 strategic objective for airlines but form only part of a rounded environmental sustainability strategy. The second most important strategic initiative for airlines is waste reduction. Can you describe Delta’s work regarding reducing waste, recycling and zero-waste initiatives?

Waste reduction will continue to be a focus especially as it relates to our on-board service, and we do look at it holistically. In 2007, we were one of the first U.S. airlines to implement an in-flight recycling program. We donate all proceeds from recycling rebates to Habitat for Humanity. Since then, the program has recycled more than 3 million pounds of aluminium from onboard waste – equivalent to the weight of seven empty Airbus 350s – and funded 12 Habitat for Humanity homes.

In 2018, we took a huge step toward removing single-use plastics onboard and in Delta Sky Clubs by replacing stir sticks with bamboo and birchwood options and removing straws and plastic wrap from amenity kits and international main cabin cutlery, eliminating more than 300,000 pounds in plastic waste annually – equivalent to the weight of almost three empty Airbus 321s.

We are also looking at on-board waste more holistically to find real, long-term solutions: end of life for the product chosen will get into the correct waste stream, alternative is not heavier, and streamlining catering on board to be optimized and reduce waste.


Despite the pandemic, Sustainability remains a top priority

Let’s talk about the topic that is on everyone’s mind. During our research we found that carriers fall into two camps: firstly, the ones that took sustainability out of the board room in order to deal with dropping passenger numbers and revenue. And secondly, the carriers who took the opportunity of the pandemic and the ‘Greta effect’ to accelerate their sustainability work. During a time of a crisis for humanity and our industry, what is the business case of accelerating focus on an airline’s sustainability strategy? Is COVID an opportunity to rethink, pivot and reinvent?

We’re in a unique situation where we announced our huge sustainability goal of $1B over 10 years to achieve carbon-neutrality literally just weeks before the world changed, and we were dealing with COVID. Since February, we’ve reiterated that despite the pandemic, our commitment to climate change still stands because this will be a top priority long after COVID is solved for.

We’ll be guided by our sustainability strategy and mission, and we’re taking this time to adjust the playbook for what we will do post-COVID. We are working toward many of our goals right now by accelerating our fleet modernization program by permanently retiring many of our least-efficient aircraft that have already been parked due to the pandemic, exploring sustainable aviation fuels that can play a role in our efforts, and supporting the development of future aircraft propulsion technology. What we want to do coming out of COVID is ensure that we’re all working together to make a positive impact most effectively with our customers, our partner airlines, our suppliers and partners outside of the aviation industry.

We know this is a very difficult time for humanity and our industry, but we believe more strongly than ever in our mission to connect the world and to promote understanding across cultures and countries. But connecting the world and keeping it beautiful for future generations cannot be mutually exclusive. That’s why we remain committed to sustainability and will continue to champion responsible environmental practices to ensure longevity for our company and industry.

Thank you Stephanie, for your time to have this interview with us. We are pleased to be working with Delta Airlines and really appreciate your willingness to share your perspectives with us.’