6 of the World’s Most Sustainable Airlines in 2023

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Sustainability is an issue that’s drawing a lot of attention and focus throughout society, and the aviation industry is no exception. Whether it’s through slashing carbon emissions per passenger kilometer, embracing alternative fuels, or making use of energy-efficient aircraft designs, carriers from all over the world understand the importance of adopting greener practices.

#1: KLM Royal Dutch Airlines

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines stands out as one of the leaders in the aviation industry’s journey toward sustainability. At the forefront of their approach is their ambitious Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) initiative, with the airline committing to the goal of using 10% SAF by 2025. It is said that SAF can reduce carbon emissions by up to 85% compared to the jet fuel that’s traditionally used, making this an important step.

Another move that KLM is making involves updating its fleet. The airline is introducing Boeing 787 Dreamliners, which boasts a 20-25% reduction in emissions versus their previous models. By introducing these modernized planes into its fleet, KLM is well on the way to significantly improving its per-passenger fuel efficiency.

KLM also has a CO2ZERO compensation service that allows passengers to take responsibility for their carbon footprint. Passengers flying with KLM can invest in certified climate projects like reforestation or renewable energy initiatives around the world, and this can offset the CO2 emitted during their flight.

Like many airlines, KLM has given themselves a list of objectives to meet by a certain date. The airline’s 2030 Environmental Goals state that it’s committed to making a reduction of 30% in both its Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions by 2030, as compared to the per revenue tonne kilometer (RTK) numbers of 2019.

#2: Wizz Air

Another airline taking sustainability seriously is Wizz Air. Based out of Hungary, tourists often fly with Wizz Air due to its low-cost flights, but its strong sustainability efforts are another reason to support them. The airline has one of the lowest carbon emissions impact per passenger, in large part due to its younger, fuel-efficient fleet and direct route network.

Wizz’s fleet is made up of the ultra-efficient Airbus A321neo. These planes are not just sleek and modern, but they also offer benefits to the environment, including 20% fuel savings compared to previous models. This is one of the reasons why Wizz claims to be Europe’s greenest airline, even if some of its competitors disagree.

One thing that stands out about Wizz Air’s approach is its long-term vision, having set the goal of achieving zero net emissions by 2050. As well as having a modern fleet, they’re investing in alternative fuels and other kinds of innovations whenever they present themselves. 

One example of the alternative fuel investment is from earlier this year when Wizz announced they were investing £5 million in a company called Firefly, a sustainable aviation fuel producer. They estimated at the time that the partnership with Firefly could result in over 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent being saved. 

#3: Alaska Airlines

Next up is Alaska Airlines, one of the standouts in North America. Like some of the others mentioned in this article, biofuels are a priority. Back in 2016, Alaska powered one of its flights using 20% wood-based biofuel. This was fuel made up of leftover branches and limbs from timber harvesting, and their interest in the area continues today.

Another area where Alaska Airlines shines is through its Green Gateway Program partnership with Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. This collaboration was set up to make the airport’s operations more green-friendly. Things like conserving energy and water, reducing waste, and minimizing the environmental impact of ground services are all a focus.

Alaska was the first US airline to eliminate the five biggest sources of plastic waste (plastic bottles, citrus picks, straws, stir sticks) onboard their planes and has recycling programs in place. Among other things, the carrier has also set a goal of a 20% emissions reduction by 2025.

Another initiative from Alaska involves strengthening the local ecosystems in locations that they fly to. The carrier partners with a range of different organizations to restore habitats throughout the US. The goal of this program is to balance the company’s water usage and creation.

#4: Etihad Airways

Turning our attention to the United Arab Emirates, Etihad Airways has a strong emphasis on eco-friendly practices. One of the core aspects of their environmental strategy is the ‘Greenliner’ program. This is a very innovative program where they use their fleet of Boeing 787 aircraft as flying test beds for different sustainable flight technologies. 

Etihad also has collaborations with giants of the industry, including both Boeing and NASA. As they think outside the box, they’re aiming to push the boundaries of what’s possible in eco-friendly aviation with these partnerships. Their goal is to find solutions that could potentially benefit the entire industry, not just their airline.

Another interesting innovation from Etihad is its Sustainable Financing Framework. Part of this framework is obtaining green loans to make sure that the borrowed money is spent on sustainability efforts. Another part of this framework involves offering green bonds to their investors. This means that the investors who buy these bonds understand that the money must be used for environmentally-friendly projects.

Etihad’s Mangrove Forest program is also worth talking about. Located in the Jubail Mangrove Park, whenever a passenger books an Economy Space seat, Etihad plants a mangrove on their behalf. This is a much better offsetting approach compared to simply spending money, an approach that many companies are often criticized for.

#5: Scandinavian Airlines System

Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS) is not as globally known compared to the others on the list, but its sustainability efforts are commendable. Since 2020, SAS has achieved carbon-neutral growth. This is a milestone that showcases exactly how dedicated to environmental responsibility the company is.

This achievement was made possible by a multi-pronged approach that involves several of the things that other airlines already mentioned have adopted. Investment in biofuel, carbon offsetting programs, and adopting a more fuel-efficient fleet have all been key components to the success of SAS. The airline ensures its expansion does not come at the cost of an increased carbon footprint.

As well as being a smaller airline, one of the reasons SAS has been successful is its work in transitioning to more renewable electricity in its ground operations. Everything from lighting terminals to powering conveyor belts for baggage handling can have an effect, and this initiative demonstrates how airlines can make substantial changes beyond just in-flight operations.

Another initiative SAS has introduced to its passengers is New Nordic by SAS. This is an innovative catering concept that focuses on local produce and seasonal availability, while also prioritising organic food options. The goal of New Nordic by SAS is to support regional agriculture, while at the same minimising the need for long-distance transportation of ingredients. Even using smartly-designed packaging is part of New Nordic.

Although only indirectly related to sustainability, SAS has several humanitarian programs that are helping the world. SAS-U-Assist is one of those programs, and it began back in 1979. It’s a non-profit initiative where SAS employees volunteer to help children in developing countries get a better life. Only 5% of the funds raised get used on administrative costs, meaning that the overwhelming majority of the money goes straight to the projects.

The company is big on transparency, too. Each year, they post a sustainability report on their website that comprehensively details their environmental efforts. These detailed reports offer insights into all sorts of different facets of the airline’s environmental footprint. 

#6: Delta Air Lines

At number six, we have one of the most well-known airlines in the United States, Delta Air Lines. After recognizing the importance of quickly addressing climate change back in 2020, Delta announced that it would be investing a staggering $1 billion by 2030 with the end goal of achieving carbon neutrality. Although their plans have faced some scrutiny, their commitment to solving this big issue is impressive.

As has been a recurring theme in this list, a key strategy in Delta’s environmental plan is fleet modernization. By incorporating the Airbus A220 and A321neo planes into their lineup, they’re significantly reducing the per-seat-mile emissions as compared to older planes. The newer models feature more efficient engines, lighter materials, and advances in aerodynamics. Companies like Airbus taking climate change seriously have been a big part of the success that many airlines have had.

One of the more innovative ideas from Delta has been its Sustainable Skies Lab. Here, experts dedicate themselves to exploring and experimenting with new technologies in sustainable aviation. It’s much like the startup accelerators that you can find around the world, except with a complete focus on sustainability and aviation.

Each airline is approaching sustainability in its own way, but there is some overlap. Planes need to be modernized, fuel sources need to be changed, and sustainability must be prioritized through all areas of the business, not just on planes. It will be interesting to see what new technologies are being developed, but rest assured that a lot of smart people are spending a lot of time and money to solve this very important problem.