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Asia-Pacific airlines maintain environmental efforts despite pandemic

Analysis

In many respects, Asia-Pacific airlines are recovering more slowly from the COVID-19 crisis than those in other regions. But while survival and restructuring have been their main focus since the start of the pandemic, they have not lost sight of the environmental initiatives that were a high priority before the crisis – and undoubtedly will be again.

A wide range of airline strategic goals have had to be pushed back due to the crisis, but generally not sustainability objectives. In some areas – such as fleet fuel efficiency – the effects of the pandemic may even lead to acceleration. Recent actions by airlines across the Asia-Pacific region demonstrate the range of avenues the industry is pursuing to meet environmental aims and obligations.

In some ways airline emission mitigation efforts are even more in the spotlight now. Many airlines are being forced to revisit their business plans due to the pandemic, and they are under pressure from environmental watchdog groups to make sustainability a larger component.

When international services do eventually resume, airlines will probably find that the “flight shame” movement will also return with a vengeance.

Summary:

  • CORSIA and net-zero carbon goals draw Asia-Pacific commitments.
  • JAL, ANA are continuing to break new ground with biofuels trials.
  • SIA and Air Tahiti Nui are among the latest to offer voluntary offsetting.
  • Fleet strategy disruptions will mean lower average age, and efficiency gains.

Asia-Pacific participation in major global initiatives is growing

An increasing number of Asia-Pacific airlines are committing to the goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

For example, All Nippon Airways announced this commitment in Apr-2021, and Singapore Airlines did so in May-2021. Several other Asia-Pacific airlines adopted this target in 2020, including Cathay Pacific, Qantas, Malaysia Airlines, Sri Lankan Airlines and Fiji Airways.

Separately, most Asia-Pacific nations have signed up for the voluntary phase of the 'Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation' (CORSIA). The remaining nations – except those exempt from the programme – must join from 2027.

The global list of countries participating in CORSIA's voluntary phase rose past 100 in Jul-2021. Half a dozen Pacific Island nations joined the list in Jun-2021, boosting the Asia-Pacific total to 17 countries.

However, notable absentees from the voluntary phase include China, India and Vietnam.

CORSIA: membership status, as of 5-Jul-2021

Sustainable fuel trials are continuing, despite reduced flying

Developing sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is one of the main threads the industry is pursuing. Several airlines in the Asia-Pacific region have been conducting demonstration flights using SAF in recent years to test various fuel sources and technologies, and this process has continued during the pandemic.

Both of the Japanese major airlines operated significant domestic demonstration flights in Jun-2021 using biofuel blends. While such flights have been done before by these and other airlines, these flights were notable for either the type of feedstock used or through meeting new international fuel standards. The flights were conducted in cooperation with Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organisation.

The major obstacle for widespread SAF use is supply volume and infrastructure, and some airlines are involved in helping develop the supply side. Korean Air has reached an agreement with the leading refinery company Hyundai Oilbank, aimed at advancing the manufacturing and usage of SAF. The pair signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to this effect on 30-Jun-2021.

Under the MOU, Korean Air will purchase biofuel from Hyundai, while Hyundai will build an SAF manufacturing plant and conduct related research.

The agreement will also result in Korean Air taking more action to “raise social awareness on SAF … which is still very new” to most people in South Korea, the airline said. Korean will hold discussions with government authorities to help establish relevant standards and regulations.

More Asia-Pacific airlines are developing offsetting programmes

An environmental initiative that attacks the problem from a different angle is voluntary carbon offsetting for passengers. Many airlines already offer this to varying degrees, and in Jun-2021 Singapore Airlines introduced an extensive offsetting programme of its own.

SIA and its Scoot subsidiary have established microsites for the offset programme, and they will match offsets bought by customers for the first six months. Customers will be able to use frequent flyer points to purchase credits from the fourth quarter of 2021.

Air Tahiti Nui is another Asia-Pacific airline that launched a voluntary offset programme in Jun-2021. Passengers will be able to buy credits for three projects through 'CarbonClick'. These projects are all in other countries, but in the second phase of its offsets programme the airline intends to develop offset projects in French Polynesia.

While there has been debate about the effectiveness of such programmes, they still provide an option that certain customers want. Air New Zealand reported that for FY2020 – which began 1-July-2019 – 7.1% of its international bookings were partially or fully offset. The rate was more than 10% for US bookings.

Fleet fuel efficiency will be boosted in the wake of the pandemic

While SAF offers long term promise, introducing newer and more efficient aircraft is still the major plank of airline emission reduction efforts.

“Today, the most effective and direct way for an airline to materially lower carbon emissions is by operating a young fleet of aircraft”, said SIA CEO Goh Choon Phong.

In some respects airline fleet renewal has been set back, as many airlines have deferred new deliveries due to the effects of the pandemic. But this will be outweighed by the fact that large numbers of older aircraft are being retired early, as airlines have cut back capacity and prefer to be operating their newer aircraft. This should have the effect of reducing the average fleet age in Asia-Pacific.

Most of the region’s airlines have accelerated aircraft retirements – particularly in their widebody fleets.

This trend will continue for the short term at least, as some parked aircraft are unlikely to return to service if international demand is slow to rebuild. Those airlines – such as IndiGo – that have not delayed new deliveries are switching their focus from growth to fleet renewal and modernisation.

Airlines recognise they cannot ease momentum – even during the COVID crisis

The airlines mentioned here are far from the only ones pursuing such environmental objectives.

But timing matters, and these recent examples show that airlines are willing to devote resources to sustainability efforts when they are also looking under every rock to cut costs.

Are these actions 100% altruistic? Of course not – in the case of fleet modernisation, phasing out less-efficient aircraft is a financially sound decision, as well as contributing to emissions reduction.

And the airline industry recognises that it has no choice but to take a range of actions on climate change or risk more punitive measures. Whatever the motivation, however, important steps are still being taken.

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