New United Reports Promise More Accurate Emissions Data

By | June 29, 2015

[UPDATE, Feb 3, 2017: We published new information related to this article here.]

The U.S. government appears poised to recognize that airplanes cause air pollution. Airlines already know this. They’ve done a lot to mitigate the impact. To help corporate clients with theirs, United Airlines this year created custom emissions reports and carbon offset options.

Delta and JetBlue provide some similar services, as do several non-U.S. airlines.

Some execs say they don’t hear many requests from corporate clients to work together on this issue. Those clients may think they have bigger issues.

Businesses do use other sources for travel emissions data. Many of the larger ones monitor and manage their travel footprints in accordance with the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Protocol. Travel management companies, eco-specialist firms and others help those efforts.

According to Egencia North America reporting program manager Karissa Weeks, “this type of information is almost a de facto part of corporate travel reporting these days, and is a requirement in some countries.”

air-emissionsBecause suppliers may use different formats to report emissions, collecting data directly from all of them can be challenging. That’s why many corporate travel managers get info from their TMCs.

There are lots of methodologies that a TMC or other third party can use to measure greenhouse gas emissions from air travel. Many base data on estimates from carbon calculators. It’s an evolving area.

Amadeus uses International Civil Aviation Organization data. That feeds the company’s distribution platforms, including the e-Travel Management self-booking tool. As with other systems, users can see point-of-sale carbon calculations to compare itineraries and transport modes.

ICAO estimates are “based on the average fleet that covers the city pair, the distance, load factor and class of service,” according to an Amadeus spokesperson. Amadeus also provides custom data aggregation services.

HRG bases client emissions reporting on “U.K. government-defined data,” according to a spokesperson. Egencia offers reporting based on Defra’s methodology.

But according to GBTA Sustainability Committee member Mark Papale, TMC data can be “superficial.” Also Autodesk’s travel operations and travel technology manager, he said reporting derived from GDS data is “a standard formula, based on miles flown.” It does not account for things like headwinds, which increase fuel burn.

TMCs don’t use actual fuel consumption data. Travel and Transport CIO Mike Kubasik said his company’s ecoTTek Green Reporting service is “probably as accurate as you can get without being an airline.” Travel and Transport uses client booking data and estimates from the World Resource Institute.

Kubasik wasn’t sure what would be involved in obtaining data directly from carriers, and hasn’t heard clients request a higher degree of accuracy. “It’s probably worth a simple discussion with our airline partners,” he said.

Bernard Harrop, head of sustainability for the Global Business Travel Association’s Project Icarus, said airline data will be more important — and consistent — as regulators and trade groups push for reporting standards.

He noted the Hotel Carbon Measurement Initiative, which offers a standard for the lodging sector. “It’s basic, but a good start,” said Harrop. “You can now compare hotels like for like. That’s what is missing from airlines. When you get that, you’ll see better reporting and more demand.”

Airing Options

Joanne McNellis Coelho is chair of GBTA’s Sustainability Committee and global travel manager for Wyndham Worldwide. “I don’t know if all the great things airlines are doing are trickling down to their corporate customers,” she said. “Within our travel program we ask our partners to share that information as a practice but we initiated those conversations.”

Wyndham is a launch customer of United’s Eco-Skies CarbonChoice. In partnership with Sustainable Travel International, clients can choose from a variety of offset programs.

United’s director of environmental strategy and sustainability Mihir Thakkar described the program this way:

Using the customer’s specific account code, the emissions report calculations are based on flight level data recognizing actual routes, aircraft type, fuel consumed, payload and customer-specific business travel and/or shipments. This provides each client a specific carbon footprint associated with their travel/shipments on United. Initial calculations are based on the previous year’s flight data with a “true-up” taking place at the end of the year as flight data is finalized. Therefore, each report is customized to that corporation’s travel/shipments on United. As opposed to other carbon calculators that are based on an airline’s fleet-wide average or outdated industry estimates, United’s calculation tool utilizes actual flight level data and applies a next-generation CO2 emissions calculation methodology informed by recent International Air Transport Association and International Civil Aviation Organization analyses as well as European Standards.

Delta reports to corporate clients greenhouse gas emissions data “based on actual Delta fuel and load data from the previous year,” according to a spokesperson. “We also report annual greenhouse gas emissions to roughly 10 customers via the CDP Supply Chain program.”

The airline also provides information to clients on carbon offset programs. “It is not an official program right now,” said the spokesperson, “but we’ve had conversations … because of interest from the customers.”

At JetBlue, an official said the corporate sales team can work with accounts “to purchase offsets for company travel.”

Air France and British Airways also are among those providing corporate emissions reporting. So is Virgin Atlantic, which like Delta does so on request through the Carbon Disclosure Project, according to a spokesperson. “There is a growing demand for corporate clients wanting to calculate their carbon emissions and we see it frequently with requests for proposals.”

SAS also provides such reporting. The Scandinavian carrier indicated that “less than 1 percent” of individual customers booking on its website make use of the offsetting opportunity. It didn’t report stats on corporate usage, but like Virgin noted a growing number of requests from corporate customers. SAS works with The CarbonNeutral Company to provide corporate emissions reporting and offsetting.

Lufthansa pointed to subsidiary AirPlus and its Green Company Account and reporting products. The German carrier also enables individual customers to offset flight emissions on its website. A spokesperson couldn’t say whether it provides emissions reporting to corporate clients not using AirPlus for payment.

Fluctuating Demand

As usual with this topic, interest level depends on who you ask. Amadeus said corporate demand for environmental information “fluctuated” in recent years.

Egencia’s Weeks said that carbon offsetting “is a hot topic” among the TMC’s customers, with interest from a cross-section of corporate accounts.

Not so at Travel and Transport. Kubasik said clients expressing interest are very much in the minority — often nonprofits, tech companies or engineering firms. “Some companies, due to their type of business and culture, are very interested,” he said. “Others don’t care at all. They care more about the cheapest and fastest way to get to where they are going.”

Research conducted by GBTA in spring 2014 showed more attention to sustainability. Among about 100 U.S. travel manager respondents, 40 percent said the topic is more important now than two years ago (with another 58 percent indicating it’s as important). Nineteen percent said their organizations incorporate sustainability into travel policies. That may not sound like much, but it’s nearly double from GBTA’s 2012 findings.

“From a committee standpoint we struggle with whether people really are diving into sustainability and incorporating it into their travel programs and making it a priority,” said McNellis Coelho. “I don’t know that everyone is screaming about it, but it’s happening. We have seen many companies have great success in building sustainability into their travel programs and our goal is to bring light to what is happening to the masses.”

Interest will grow if more companies, including airlines, become subject to regulations mandating emissions reporting.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in June said it is “proposing to find” that greenhouse gas emissions from commercial airplane engines “are contributing to air pollution.” EPA then would seek input on what to do about it. Noting that ICAO expects to finalize global standards in February 2016, EPA may invoke the Clean Air Act to adopt “corresponding” standards. EPA reported that U.S. aircraft GHG emissions in 2013 represented 3 percent of total U.S. emissions and 0.5 percent of total worldwide emissions. It also noted that aircraft in the United States represent “the single largest GHG-emitting transportation source not yet subject to any GHG regulations.”

Airlines for America claims U.S. airlines handled 20 percent more passengers and cargo last year than in 2000, but generated 8 percent fewer carbon dioxide emissions. It credits improved fuel efficiency thanks to new planes, new jet fuels and better navigation.