Airline execs predict 'major changes' amid pressure to cut emissions: Analyst

Aviation executives foresee "major changes" to how people travel as sustainability demands grow, one analyst says.

"It is kind of a new era," Callaway Climate Insights Founder and Editor-in-Chief David Callaway told Yahoo Finance Live (video above). "Some are already saying it's a bubble… But they're riding high right now, and I think you will see them start to pay attention, because they know that their customers are paying attention. They know their customers care about this stuff."

Callaway spoke to Yahoo Finance Live as airline leaders gathered at the Paris Air Show to make deals and discuss the future of air travel. 

Facing growing pressure to improve its climate footprint, the International Air Transport Association – a group of 300 airlines including United, Delta, and JetBlue – has committed to reaching net zero emissions by 2050.

But achieving that target will be tricky. It requires reducing a carbon output that is relatively small – in 2021, aviation made up only 1.8% of total carbon emissions, a figure much smaller than industries like auto, which comprised over 12%.

Still, it's a big sum – domestic aviation alone emitted 327 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2021, nearly as much as international flights, which emitted 384 million metric tons, according to the IATA.

While the IATA has said governments and businesses need to chip in to help the industry reach its net-zero goal, Callaway said that airlines are still pushing to develop new technologies. And they’re looking for ways to make good on their pledges to reduce emissions beyond simply purchasing carbon offsets.

"Lurking in the background is what every aviation executive knows are going to be major changes to how people travel and what they're going to demand of the fuel cycles of these airlines," he said.

In 2021, the International Air Transport Association committed to achieving net zero emissions in the airline industry by 2050. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
In 2021, the International Air Transport Association committed to achieving net zero emissions in the airline industry by 2050. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

In some places, airlines are seeing their hands forced by governments keen on making the same climate commitment to their citizens. Last month, France — host of the Paris Air Show — banned short-haul flights between locations where train routes exist, and Austria has implemented a similar ban.

Facing a population that started a "flight shame" movement in 2019, Sweden has increased emission fees for planes. The Nordic country said it wanted to make older planes — which emit more carbon — pay more at takeoff and landing.

Callaway said the US is a different story, although more short-haul flights are being cancelled. It's the first sign of a global shift towards longer flights, which Callaway said will become the center of attention when it comes to sustainability efforts.

"[T]he airline industry is moving into a new era of long haul, super flights," he said, "and in that area, we're going to see the advancement of sustainable aviation fuel."

One example of the potential future of aviation: the use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel, or SAF – what Callaway said will either be a "hybrid of jet fuel and biofuel" or biofuel created from food waste and other renewable materials.

As the airline industry recovers from years of pandemic and disaster disruption, Callaway said it is discussing climate change efforts at a level he’s never seen before.

"Times have definitely changed, and the airline industry is changing with it," he said.

Jared Mitovich is a writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @jmitovich

Read the latest financial and business news from Yahoo Finance