EXECUTIVE INTERVIEW: Driving Efficiency and Reducing Emissions at United Airlines

May 7, 2019

An ACT News Executive Interview with Aaron Stash, Manager, Environmental Strategy and Sustainability, United Airlines, the first airline to use biofuels in its daily operations.

United Airlines remains the only US airline regularly using biofuels for the operations—which they implemented more than three years ago. As manager of environmental strategy and sustainability at United Airlines, Aaron Stash must have a strategic understanding of efficiency across their operations and a keen knowledge of the sustainability challenges unique to the aviation industry.

Aaron Stash insights into what may, or may not, prove to be promising new technology for the aviation industry and discusses how comprehensive sustainability initiatives at United have reduced waste and increased efficiency for the airline.

ACT News caught up with Aaron to learn more about United’s use of biofuel and their impressive portfolio of sustainability initiatives.

ACT News: You are overseeing ground breaking work at United Airlines by incorporating jet biofuel. Tell us about the key actions United is taking with jet biofuel, and why there’s a compelling case for jet biofuel in the aviation industry.

Aaron Stash: United uses roughly 4 billion gallons of fuel annually, and so unsurprisingly, fuel use makes up nearly 99% of our carbon footprint. We are committed to reducing our footprint and were the first US airline to publicly commit to reducing our own greenhouse gas emissions 50% by the year 2050 (from a 2005 baseline). That’s over 20 million metric tons of CO2—or the equivalent of all the cars in Los Angeles and New York City—combined. We also have over 750 aircraft in our fleet. The biofuel we use today lowers that carbon footprint and is compatible in all our aircraft.

Since 2016, United Airlines has used over 2 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel in our LAX operations.

Since 2016, United has used over 2 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel, aka biofuel, in our LAX operations. We get this fuel from World Energy, formerly AltAir Fuels, in Paramount, California. This “Made in California” fuel is blended with traditional fuel and delivered to LAX on a regular basis.

In addition to World Energy, United has also made an investment in Fulcrum BioEnergy, the industry’s largest biofuel producer, for the future procurement of nearly 1 billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel.

ACT News: You just spoke at ACT Expo at the Greening Aviation Workshop, which explored how alternative fuels in aviation have the potential to reduce emissions and lower costs. What are some of the lessons learned by United, as one of the leaders in the industry, and what other alternative fuels or technologies is United considering?

Aaron Stash: United was the first airline to use biofuels in our daily operations and has remained the only US airline using biofuels regularly for the past three years. This sustainable aviation fuel is a viable alternative that reduces our emissions 60-80% on a lifecycle basis and is available today. In addition, the biofuel we use is made from waste byproducts. We’re careful to review the entire lifecycle of these fuels. World Energy utilizes agricultural waste and Fulcrum will use household waste.

Beyond our aircraft, we continue to convert our ground support equipment to alternative power, using over 34% electric equipment. We continue to monitor the technology for electric aircraft as well but don’t see a commercially viable option today—which is why our bigger focus is on increasing sustainable aviation fuel production.

ACT News: Besides incorporating jet biofuel, what are some of the other sustainable practices being incorporated by United Airlines?

Aaron Stash: Our onboard recycling program is probably the most visible aspect to our customers. We collected over 1.7 million pounds of aluminum cans and plastic cups and bottles in 2018. And, while we’re always working to improve the quantity of items we collect, we’ve also taken steps to reduce and reuse items first.

Last year we joined with the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago to “Shedd The Straw” and swapped our plastic stirring sticks and cocktail picks to bamboo instead. In 2016, we became the first airline to collect and donate our unused amenity kits in partnership with Clean the World. Through that program, we’re diverting 50,000 pounds of materials annually which are repurposed by our employees and Clean the World to create hygiene kits for disaster relief and homeless shelters.

We have also created a Raptor Relocation Program with Audubon International to rescue and move American Kestrels and other large birds of prey away from Port Authority of New York and New Jersey airports, including Newark (EWR), and transfer those birds to Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program certified golf courses. The American Kestrel is a threatened species in the state of New Jersey and we successfully relocated a half-dozen birds in the first year of the program, with more each year.

ACT News: What do you feel private companies, public agencies and governments need to do to innovate and invest in innovation?

Aaron Stash: Success in sustainable aviation fuel has really been a product of public/private partnerships and stable, long-term environmental policies. Our biofuel program is successful in California because of the state incentives for alternative fuel including the inclusion of sustainable aviation fuel into the renewable fuels standard this year, the investments by the Department of Defense and other federal agencies in AltAir Fuels (now World Energy), and United’s offtake agreements.

These technologies exist today and can lower the carbon footprint of aviation now, but without long-term policies in place, the biofuel industry is hesitant to make the substantial capital investments in new facilities. Our investments and agreements help ease the hesitation, but we need more airlines and governments to support these technologies as well.

ACT News: What advice would you give to recent new hires at United Airlines?

Aaron Stash: We’re all in sustainability. While my team may be small, it really takes all 90,000 employees at United to make a difference for the environment. One of our Core4 values is “Efficiency” and I relate that directly to the environment. Because fuel is so integral to our footprint, and our costs, any time we’re operating more efficiently, we’re helping the environment. The same could be true for young professionals interested in a career in sustainability. Corporate sustainability teams are rather small, but I can assure you we would all appreciate support from any team in the company that can help further the company’s environmental goals. When a position becomes available, it’s those internal team members who will have an advantage to move into that role.

Because fuel is so integral to our footprint, and our costs, any time we’re operating more efficiently, we’re helping the environment.

ACT News: What is the next challenge you have planned?

Aaron Stash: We’re exploring how to replace our other single-use plastic items with more sustainable alternatives, but the wild card for aviation is that the weight of any new material is crucial. If we source a more sustainable item that weighs more than the plastic item it replaces, we may do more harm to the environment because of the increased fuel we would burn because of the weight. This isn’t something most companies have to consider, and it makes it that much more challenging in our space.

ACT News: Do you have a favorite quote, motto or personal mantra?

Aaron Stash: “If you’re not creating, you’re waiting.” I attribute that to actor/comedian Kevin Pollak, who was talking about the entertainment community, but I think it’s equally applicable to sustainability.

If we’re not creating new programs or trying new things, we’re not going to make a difference. We’re just waiting for someone else to fix the problem for us and that’s not a luxury we have in business and certainly not with the environment.