Oscar the Grouch wants you to get excited about Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) production. The Sesame Street character took on an additional job as United Airlines‘ new Chief Trash Officer, part of a public outreach campaign the carrier launched this week.
If people better understood how their habits are impacting the planet, and they better understood what we could do to address it, then we’d actually be in much better shape.– Josh Earnest, SVP & Chief Communications Officer, United Airlines
The campaign includes more than 30 pieces of original video, digital, social, and out-of-home content. It follows Oscar’s journey from when he first sees the job listing to his new office. It also includes many other United employees he interacts with along the way.
The carrier hopes the campaign will bring SAFs more broadly into the public discourse, which is a rather interesting mission for an airline to undertake. It is rather rare that carriers ever want the general public thinking about their behind-the-scenes operations.
But with SAF purchase commitments strong and supplies limited, United is keen to help drive further development in the industry. And it needs the help of the general public to get there.
Is there enough to be had?
The main challenge today for the industry is getting enough SAFs produced quickly enough to meet emission reduction goals. Building more facilities to produce the fuel will help, but feedstocks are also a challenge. United cites the Department of Energy’s report that sufficient feedstocks exist to meet the US aviation industry’s goals. But the DoE includes corn and other farmed sources in that analysis. CEO Scott Kirby frequently speaks out against using those stocks, as it shifts the emissions burden rather than truly reducing it.
United’s Chief Sustainability Officer Lauren Riley is hopeful that carbon capture technologies could help address the feedstock challenge. “I’m really bullish about [carbon capture] technology. It’s going to take a little bit of time to mature, but folks are working on it. There’s a lot of curiosity and excitement about it, in particular, now that we have the incentives from the Inflation Reduction Act.”
This is also the sort of technology that United’s Sustainable Flight Fund plans to invest in, and where it hopes to deliver profits down the line.
Does every little bit really help?
The company confirmed that approximately 3,200 consumers contributed to its $100 million Sustainable Flight Fund. That means roughly 6,800 slots are still available to snag the 500 bonus points for making a donation to the investment fund.
Can those small contributions make a difference? Riley noted that if each of United’s 152 million passengers in 2022 contributed just $3.50 that would be enough to bring a new SAF production facility online, delivering 40 million gallons annually. Against the backdrop of United’s 3.5 billion gallons consumed in 2019, however, that’s just one percent of the problem. Plus, that $500 million is just the capital costs to bring the plant online.
Even major investments in production facilities are going to face challenges meeting the industry’s overall demand. And if only a few thousand are willing to contribute, rather than the 152 million, that pushes the goals even further into uncertainty.
Changing the public discourse
So, if consumers cannot directly address this issue, and the SAF production lines are all oversubscribed today, why bother with this (admittedly quite fun) campaign? Earnest had an answer for that:
If we can build broader public support and political support in this country and around the world, for things like production incentives, to drive more awareness and to have more customers of all airlines asking those airlines to use SAF, all of those things are going to help nudge us in in a in a positive direction.
The reference to political support is particularly notable. Airlines around the globe have been lobbying aggressively for more incentives to help stimulate investment in production facilities and to help lower their acquisition costs. SAFs today price at roughly triple traditional fuels, if you can even get them.
One industry source suggested privately that the existing commitments to those incentives, first codified in the USA as part of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, were on shaky ground. Political support for the SAF industry is wavering, as politicians see a significant expense without broad public support. Awareness campaigns like this one could help make the SAF subsidies a more palatable political commitment.
This is a fun campaign. It should even succeed in getting a few more people talking about SAFs. But the fact that is needed to convince politicians to act is something of an absurdity that Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin would enjoy.
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