Delta’s sustainability chief says people don’t have to choose between flying and protecting the environment

September 23, 2022, 10:47 AM UTC
Pamela Fletcher, chief sustainability officer at Delta
Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon

Delta Air Lines’ business has rebounded from its pandemic low, with demand for both business and leisure travel now within spitting distance of pre-pandemic levels. As the airline, the largest in the U.S. by revenue, regains altitude, it’s also ramped up its environmental focus, both for the cost efficiencies those efforts can provide and because of the heightened scrutiny around airline sustainability.

Last autumn, Delta named Pam Fletcher, an engineer by training and a General Motors veteran, as its sustainability chief, reporting directly to CEO Ed Bastian. Her mandate: help Delta hit net-zero emissions by 2050, a goal set for the industry by the International Air Transportation Association just under one year ago.

For Delta, that includes working with other airlines to create a larger, viable market for sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which is far more ecologically friendly to produce but expensive due to limited supply and a small market. Her job also entails collaborating with airplane makers to spur the development of more fuel-efficient engines. Those two components are key for Delta since they tackle the source of 98% of Delta’s current emissions. But Fletcher has also pursued smaller moves, such as replacing plastic utensils for on-board meals with those made of bamboo and offering vegan meals on all flights.

Fletcher agrees that the industry’s environmental goals are ambitious but says they have to be. “If we don’t put something out there, we’re not going to see progress at the level that needs to happen,” she tells Fortune. Beyond the cost-operation benefits, a better environmental record is crucial at a time when more and more people, fairly or not, equate flying with environmental harm.

But for Fletcher, this is a false dilemma as Delta works to reduce its emissions. “We don’t believe you have to choose between seeing the world and saving the world,” she says.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Fortune: The global airline industry has set a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Is that an attainable goal or a moonshot to motivate companies to work toward that target?

Fletcher: You always need a goal to shoot for. If we don’t put something out there, we’re not going to see progress at the level that needs to happen. What I will tell you is we have every intention of meeting it. It doesn’t come without challenges because there are many of them, but big rewards also come with big challenges.

One such challenge is the limited supply and high price of SAF, which while environmentally friendly, is but a tiny percentage of the fuel used now. What’s needed for wider adoption?

That is the big question. To me, it is like a miracle drug because it can be used in our already deployed assets. We don’t have to allocate new capital on things like new engine propulsion systems to be able to use SAF and get a dramatic improvement and reduction in our carbon footprint. It is nothing short of amazing. The issue is that the supply of SAF doesn’t exist at scale.

So what needs to happen?

Delta as well as our other airline colleagues and people in the ecosystem and value stream of fuels really need to come to the table. What we can do to help stimulate the commercialization of SAF is increase usage to meet our mid-term targets and our long-term targets, and make the market viable. But we also have additional components in our strategy to de-risk it if SAF doesn’t come to bear as would be ultimately needed.

As chief sustainability officer, how do you determine what Delta can and needs to do to reduce its carbon footprint?

There are three areas of focus. One area is our emissions. The overwhelming majority of our carbon footprint, 98%, comes from the operation of our jets. Another is creating a zero-impact travel experience—what happens on board the plane, what happens around the plane at the gates—and making that travel experience as sustainable as possible. There are also fully sustainable business ecosystems, or what you see in our facilities, how we manage wastewater, the supply chain, and so on.

Our goal is progress now, and so in the short term, there are many things that we can control and make a difference on today. Those are high priorities for us. At the same time, we need to initiate work on those opportunities that can be delivered on more of a mid-term to long-term horizon. That includes SAF and revolutionary technology, whether it’s on our propulsion or the airframe design to truly decarbonize our business.

You are an engineer by training. Could you do this job without that background?

I’ve spent most of my career on the front end of trends and new technologies and ultimately, what it has taught me is how to be comfortable with ambiguity, a methodology for thinking through problems that don’t yet have solutions. Look at the example of electrification in the auto industry: when I started in 2005, nobody saw that as a future business model for automotive, but that is where it ended up. And now it applies to the challenge of aviation and decarbonizing it.

Delta is in the process of gradually renewing its fleet. Give us a progress report.

Delta is refreshing a large portion of our fleet over the next few years. With those plane refreshes come very measurable efficiency improvements, as in taking 20% to 25% less fuel to go the same distance. We also work to make our operations more efficient, and there are countless ways to do so: how we address the weight of our carts, how we power the planes, the maintenance performed on them, and so on.

So what’s the toughest nut to crack on the sustainability front for an airline?

To me, it’s actually a pretty simple question. For true decarbonization to happen, what will ultimately be needed are aircraft and propulsion systems that don’t rely on carbon to move through the air. So how do we stimulate all of the brightest minds to get there?

Is part of the solution to have less air traffic overall by limiting flying?

We’re a customer-centric company, and people want to fly. People want to travel.

Many see the airline industry as a major source of emissions, with some calling for people to fly less. Should people feel guilty about flying?

We don’t believe you have to choose between seeing the world and saving the world. I will tell you this: Decarbonizing aviation is a great opportunity, and we’re laser-focused on it and truly making progress every day.

Does the company feel pressure from the public to pursue this hard?

We put the pressure on ourselves. I get so many emails from our own people who care passionately about this. So we hear it from our people and we also hear it from our customers.

Get to know Fletcher:

  • She plays the French horn in several music genres, including classical and jazz, and dreams of playing in an orchestra one day.
  • Fletcher enjoys throwing dinner parties, from setting the table to cooking the food.
  • She is a big Formula One car racing fan.

Sign up for the Fortune Features email list so you don’t miss our biggest features, exclusive interviews, and investigations.

Read More

Great ResignationDiversity and InclusionCompensationCEO DailyCFO DailyModern Board