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United Airlines Now Asks Customers to Donate Money to Sustainable Flying. Is This Legit? | Frommer's United Airlines

United Airlines Now Asks Customers to Donate Money to Sustainable Flying. Is This Legit?

If you’ve booked a flight on United Airlines in recent weeks, you may have noticed an option to tack a few dollars onto your final bill. 

“Want to make the future of flying more sustainable?” United asks, offering the customer a chance to contribute to its new “Sustainable Flight Fund.” 

It’s a nominal amount of money; checking a flight from Raleigh/Durham International Airport in North Carolina to Dulles International Airport outside Washington, you could choose to add anywhere from $1 to $7 (or nothing) to a $143 fare. 

screen grab of United Airlines Sustainable Flight Fund donation request

United’s initiative is a symptom of a rapidly changing aviation landscape that, among other things, has airlines under increasing pressure to fly more sustainably.

Because other carriers are likely to pose similar offers to customers in the near future, it’s fair, not to mention timely, to ask a few questions.

What’s this all about? Where’s the money going? And is it really a worthy investment?

Here’s what we found out.

What’s this all about?

The Wright Brothers’ brief flight more than a century ago has spawned unprecedented global connectivity, to be sure. But for all the good aviation has done for our world, there’s no doubt air travel has had the significant side effect of contributing to global pollution problems.

In 2019, commercial air travel contributed 2.5% of global carbon emissions, said Emily Nyrop, a vice president focused on climate solutions at the non-profit Conservation International. Though less significant than the footprint left by the meat and dairy industries, the impact still warrants attention. 

“The airline industry is definitely a major contributor to climate change,” Nyrop told Frommer’s.

Airlines have acknowledged as much.

“We recognize our industry’s contribution to it,” American Airlines says in its boilerplate statement about climate change.  

Airlines have solicited customers’ help on green initiatives in the past. Numerous carriers, American among them, have given flyers the opportunity to donate a dollar amount of their choice toward so-called carbon offsets.

The idea is that the donated money goes toward a planet-friendly project elsewhere, ostensibly allowing the passenger to make up for the greenhouse gas emissions they helped produce by flying.

But even as offsets purchased by passengers have funded environmentally-friendly projects and accompanying economic growth, the fact remains that fossil fuels were still burned by their flights.

It’s one of the reasons climate advocates criticize the tactic, which United CEO Scott Kirby himself insinuated could amount to “greenwashing,” in a February statement.

“It’s a marketing tool,” said Thomas Gelin, Brussels-based European Union political campaigner with Greenpeace. “The idea is to take away the guilt associated with flying.” 

Increasingly, though, airlines are under pressure to do more. Both the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Airlines for America have announced commitments by their members, which include the largest U.S. airlines, to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

It’s a feat that modernized air traffic control systems and fuel-efficient jets can’t accomplish on their own. The goal will be unreachable without changes in the composition of jet fuel itself, said Joshua Heyne, an aviation fuels expert on the faculty at Washington State University, whose research has secured millions of dollars in funding from the Air Force and FAA.

“There is no path to net zero for the aviation industry by 2050 that does not go through Sustainable Aviation Fuel,” Heyne told Frommer’s, referencing the novel jet fuel products that, the U.S. Department of Energy says, could be sourced from everything from cooking oils to wood mill waste and wastewater treatment sludge. 

But SAF, as it’s known in the industry, is in short supply. 

Some 3 billion gallons of it will likely be required for airlines to replace just 10% of their kerosene-based fuel by 2030, a key benchmark for the aviation industry and the Biden administration. Net-zero by 2050 would require tens of billions of gallons.

Today, only a tiny fraction of the needed SAF exists.  

Tax credits included in the Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress in 2022 are fueling a market for sustainable fuel, but SAF remains “very expensive to produce,” Heyne said, noting it can take 10 to 20 years for its makers to ramp up production.

“The scale-up problem is a big one,” he told Frommer’s.

That’s where customers—and these new add-on fees—come in.

Where’s the money going?

In a February appearance on CNBC’s Squawk Box, United CEO Kirby explained his rationale for United’s new Sustainable Flight Fund box that asks customers to contribute. 

“We’re not just buying Sustainable Aviation Fuel. We’re really investing in the technology—the research and development,” Kirby said. “Because this industry really doesn’t exist today.”

Money from the fund (including some $100 million kicked in separately by United and five corporate partners) will go toward start-ups developing and producing these novel fuels, the airline says.

It seems likely other airlines could follow suit.

Delta Air Lines’ sustainability declaration page now cites jet fuel as the “chief focus” of its efforts to manage its environmental impact. American calls SAF the “cornerstone” of its climate strategy this decade. JetBlue now offers an offset of sorts tied to SAF.

“Sustainable Aviation Fuel in general is, I think, going to play a critical role in the future of air travel,” said Conservation International’s Nyrop.

Amid this fast-changing aviation sustainability front, experts say there are some things to keep in mind.

Is it a worthy investment?

Customers may rightfully bemoan a major, profitable corporation asking customers to "chip in." But one way or another, airlines, like most companies, tend to end up passing costs onto consumers anyway. Look no further than rising air travel costs in 2022 in the face of higher oil prices.

Future costs are likely to be folded into ticket prices, Washington State University’s Heyne said, but customers may choose to kick in a few dollars now, if feasible.

“It’s like compounding interest,” he said. “Investment today is going to cost a lot less than what a similar investment down the line is. 

“I think customers should realize [this] is just one part of a broader strategy for reducing aviation emissions,” said Nyrop. 

And, of course, it’s one that remains optional for customers… at least for now.