Improving sustainability in the airline industry

Jacqueline Drumheller, manager of environmental affairs at Alaska Airlines gave a talk on sustainability in the airline industry on April 21.  Like many other workshops happening on campus, the talk was part of the 17th annual Earth Week celebration organized by Bellevue College’s Office of Sustainability and the Environmental Advisory Committee. “I think it’s important to have a diverse set of perspectives when talking about sustainability,” explained Amber Nicholson of the Office of Sustainability. “This talk is interesting to students because it gives them an opportunity to see how a large company manages to incorporate sustainability into their day to day activities.”

Jacqueline Drumheller lectures at BC.
Jacqueline Drumheller lectures at BC.

Ashley Benedict is one of more than 40 students who listened to Drumheller’s talk. “I’m learning about sustainability because I’m taking physiology,” said Benedict. “I want to learn about how airlines are taking steps to be sustainable because I know that they are really bad for the environment.”

Drumheller opened her presentation by first asking what sustainability meant. The front table offered “keeping something around for a long time,” whereas someone else described it as “caring about the environment.” Drumheller defined it as the task of balancing the needs of the community, the planet and the employees against the companies need to gain financial profit. To her, sustainability incorporates “people, planet and profit,” the three aspects of what she called the triple bottom line. “It’s not just about money,” she emphasized, reminding the audience of all the different needs that have to be satisfied.

With some support of the students, Drumheller listed environmental impacts like air pollution and high fuel use, which airlines cause. “What we decided is really important to us are four areas,” stated Drumheller. Among these is the reduction of emissions, the reduction of consumption of non-sustainable resources, the elimination of waste, and the reduction of the facility’s energy consumption. Some achievements, like being the most efficient airline in the United States for five years in a row have already been made. In order to hold themselves accountable, Alaska Airlines publishes yearly reports about their progress.

One of the things Drumheller and her team are working on is the use of biofuel. She described how alternative fuel use is not only environmentally friendly but also profitable for the company. “If a CEO could use anything but petroleum oil, anything cheaper, he would do it,” Drumheller said, adding that “nobody wants to be tied to a single source.” By 2020, Alaska Airlines wants to reduce their emissions and fuel consumption by 20 percent compared to 2009. “There is a lot of things we can do to bring it down, but what will really seal the gap is biofuel,” Drumheller claimed. “Biofuel is our future.” Alaska Airlines is the first airline to fly multiple biofuel flights in the United States.

Additionally, Alaska Airlines works on aerodynamic improvements by adding winglets to their planes, which “saves about 3 to 5 percent fuel” and on shortening their flight routes.  Drumheller explained a new navigation system called Required Navigation Performance or RNP, which is satellite based and more accurate than radio and ground based radar. RNP routes are shorter than conventional routes and therefore require less fuel.

As a parting thought, Drumheller asked the students to think about how they can be more sustainable when they fly. “You can bring your own water bottle and pack light,” she suggested. “It’s all these little things that matter.”