Asian Carriers Push Sustainability Agenda Despite Pandemic

Korean Air Boeing 787
Korean Air is working with Hyundai Oilbank on sustainable aviation fuels.
Credit: BriYYZ/Wikimedia

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 put on the back burner due to COVID-19, but sustainability objectives have generally been spared. 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 aspirations and obligations.

An increasing number of Asia-Pacific airlines are committing to the goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. For example, All Nippon Airways (ANA) announced this commitment in April, and Singapore Airlines (SIA) did so in May. Several other Asia-Pacific airlines adopted this target in 2020, including Cathay Pacific, Qantas, Malaysia Airlines, SriLankan Airlines and Fiji Airways.

  • Airlines’ commitment to Corsia, net-zero goals is growing
  • Sustainable fuel efforts continue through disruption

Most Asia-Pacific nations have also signed up for the voluntary phase of the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (Corsia). The global list of participating countries rose past 100 this month. Half a dozen Pacific Island nations joined the list in June, boosting the Asia-Pacific total to 17 countries. However, notable absentees from the voluntary phase include China, India and Vietnam.

Developing sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is one of the main threads the industry is pursuing. Several carriers 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 despite reduced flying.

Both of the major Japanese airlines—ANA and Japan Airlines—operated significant domestic demonstration flights in June using biofuel blends. While such trials have been done before by these and other carriers, these flights were notable either for the type of feedstock used or because they meet new international fuel standards. The flights were conducted in cooperation with Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization.

The major obstacle for widespread SAF use is supply volume and infrastructure, and some airlines are involved in helping stimulate the supply side. Korean Air has reached an agreement with 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 June 30.

Under the MOU, Korean Air will purchase biofuel from Hyundai, while Hyundai will build a SAF manufacturing plant and conduct related research, the airline tells Aviation Week.

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

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 SIA introduced an extensive offsetting program of its own in June.

SIA and its Scoot subsidiary have established microsites for the offset program, and they will match offsets bought by customers for the first six months. Travelers will be able to use frequent-flyer points to purchase credits starting in the fourth quarter.

Air Tahiti Nui is another Asia-Pacific airline that launched a voluntary offset program in June. Passengers will be able to buy credits for three projects through CarbonClick, although these projects are all in other countries. In the second phase of its offset program, the airline intends to develop offset projects in French Polynesia.

While there has been debate about the effectiveness of such programs, they still provide an option that certain customers want. Air New Zealand reported that 7.1% of its international bookings for fiscal 2020—which began July 1, 2019—were partially or fully offset by passengers. The rate was over 10% for U.S. bookings.

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,” notes SIA CEO Goh Choon Phong.

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

Most of the region’s carriers have accelerated aircraft retirements, particularly in their widebody fleets. This trend will continue for at least the short term, as some parked aircraft are unlikely to return to service if international demand is slow to rebuild. Even airlines that have not delayed new deliveries, such as IndiGo, are switching their focus from growth to fleet renewal and modernization.

The airlines mentioned here are far from the only ones pursuing such environmental objectives. But timing matters, and these recent examples show that carriers are still willing to devote resources to sustainability efforts even when they are also looking under every rock to cut costs.

Adrian Schofield

Adrian is a senior air transport editor for Aviation Week, based in New Zealand. He covers commercial aviation in the Asia-Pacific region.