How Delta Airlines is Charting a Course to Net Zero Emissions

By Alexander MacDougall, Scott Kirsner |  November 23, 2021

Talk about a tall sustainability challenge: transport millions of people around the world by air, while trying to get to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Oh, and 98 percent of your carbon emissions come from burning jet fuel.

Amelia DeLuca

That was the task that Amelia DeLuca took on this past March, when she was named Managing Director for Sustainability at Atlanta-based Delta Airlines. (DeLuca was previously a Managing Director for Global Sales Support at the airline, which she joined in 2006.) 

DeLuca was part of a Delta delegation that participated in the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow earlier this month. We sat down with her for an in-depth interview at the MIT Research and Development Conference, where she was among the speakers. Among the topics we covered: electric airplanes, carbon offsets, biofuels, and communicating sustainability objectives to employees and customers.

You came out of the world of sales. Tell us about how you wound up in a sustainability role.

It’s the most frequently-asked question I get. Getting things done within the airline — it’s probably not surprising, but it’s super beneficial to be well-connected. So if you take away the specific functions I’ve done in my career, almost my entire career has been built upon cross-divisional building and transformation. When I was based over in Amsterdam, that was the merger with Northwest, and we also brought on Air France and KLM [as partners] at the time. I was in New York when Delta was building up to its #1 position in New York. I was the first expat who went down to Mexico as part of our relationship with Aeroméxico.

Being able to pull together a group of people behind a shared purpose — when it comes to sustainability, that’s exactly what you’re doing. Because it’s not any one department that owns it. My team is relatively small, but then we surround ourselves with a whole lot of people throughout the company.

Defining the goal of net zero carbon emissions — how did that come together? I don’t imagine it was the kind of thing where your CEO said “Hey, this is going to be our goal, go work on it.”

I think the nice thing about it is actually, from our CEO’s perspective, he’s all-in with the direction that we want to go. He has a lot of trust that where we need to go, even if it involves some stretch or some unknown of how we’re going to get there, he’s like, “Yeah, let’s figure it out.” 

And so net zero in 2050 was something that had come about in the spring [of 2021], when our trade association went out with a net-zero goal.

What organization is that?

It’s called Airlines for America. Delta does some amazing work on our own, but we as an industry will either all make it, or we will all not make it. So we make sure we’re very aligned with the other airlines, in terms of ambitions, because if one airline is trailing, it kind of makes the whole rest of the industry questionable at best, right? You look at the oil and gas industry, you can see those that have trailed, and for better or worse, that puts a whole cloud over the industry.

There’s always a two-step process: there’s the ambition, and then there’s putting the plan behind it. 

We had heard from investors [that they wanted us] to make sure our net zero goals are aligned to science, they’re aligned to the Paris Agreement. And that’s when we then went out and found what’s called the UN Race to Zero, which is an additional third party that says, “Yes, not only are you saying you’re going to be net-zero, but you have a plan behind it that aligns to the science.” There’s always a two-step process: there’s the ambition, and then there’s putting the plan behind it. 

What do you have, in terms of resources? Is it a team, or are you a one-woman show? 

No, I have a really wonderful team, and this is not new for the airline. It’s branded a little differently now — sustainability or ESG, whatever it may be. But for years, Delta has been recycling on board, and we capped our emissions back in 2012. And by capping those emissions, that means we’ve already been running a large carbon portfolio effort for many years. So that team had already been assembled. 

When I came on board in March of 2021, I took that team and since then we’ve just slowly been growing not only my team, but also the people that surround us. 

So is that team 50 people? 100 people?

My team is 10-ish people. But we are surrounded by other people…and there’s lots of little small teams that are set up depending upon the exercise.

So to the uninitiated, I would guess 80 percent of emissions come from the planes and 20 percent come from everything else?

It’s actually 98 percent of emissions that come from our jet fuel. So we are heavily focused on the airline operation itself. 

When I started the role back in March, if you think about where we were in the pandemic, no one really cared about sustainability in general. Everything was in plastic bags, plastic bottles… What we’re getting to, especially coming out of COP26, is that the whole world is watching everything. It’s not enough to just say, “My footprint is jet fuel, so I should only worry about the jet fuel.” Now it’s like, what are we doing with the plastic cup? And how are we sourcing the meat on the airplane? People are looking at all of it, which I personally think is refreshing.

I’m guessing that says a lot of the longer-term innovation efforts have to go into biofuel.

Absolutely; 100 percent. Any modeling that exists even at 2050 shows that more than half of the solution will still be in the biofuel space. Now, biofuels will change from anything that might be actual biofuels today, like inedible corn or used cooking oil, into synthetic fuels, not using any sort of bio substance.

So you’re saying it’s engineered, like you have a vat of bacteria or some organism that’s cranking out a synthetic fuel?

Yeah, and that will evolve over time. But at the same time, you’re going to start to layer on some of these additional solutions that will be a little bit more niche. Biofuel works. Any distance on any aircraft that flies today, it works. But then you layer in other things. Airbus, who is a great partner of Delta’s, is planning to bring on a zero-emissions aircraft that is using hydrogen as a propulsion system. Then you’ve got electric [powered aircraft], which is TBD when that actually comes online. Is it going to do really small routes, or will it actually be able to work for routes that can be up to 1000 miles? Nobody knows. But I think electric will fill a small part of that at some point. 

How do you think about all the different constituencies inside and outside Delta, and getting their attention, and getting people bought into this?

We’ve really focused on our communication efforts. As we’ve come out of the pandemic, as an airline, the whole messaging for many months was “health and safety, health and safety.” And you never want to trump that even now; that’s still the #1 message coming out of the airline. 

We launched a carbon neutral campaign that started in September, and that’s running through the end of the year, which was our first kind of post-pandemic [messaging around] “this is what we are doing, this is who we are, please have some awareness.” And we’re tracking right now to watch how that awareness is increasing. 

But as we roll into 2022, that is when we’re going to really double down with our employee base: “This is what we’re doing. Here’s how you can contribute. This is why you should be proud of our work.”

Tell me a little bit about COP26 and being there. What was your objective, and what do you feel you got out of it?

Well, it was probably one of the highlights of my career. It was incredible. 

With our ambitions, we fall into different areas of conversation when it comes to climate. So you’ve got net-zero, long-term, coalition building. Then we’ve got short-term. Because we’re carbon neutral, we’re really plugged into the nature-based solutions, because we’re on the carbon offsets market. At COP26, we participated in an event with [US climate envoy] John Kerry and his team on what was called the First Movers Coalition. 

COP26 was incredibly demonstrative of having public [sector support], which has always been there, and the private sector really showed up. And then of course, you have groups, NGOs, or youth activists that are there to kind of challenge the solutions. But I think that’s how climate works at this point. We need everyone there in the room, sharing where they think we need to be and sharing ideas. And even if we don’t feel like we’ve found all the answers, we got all the commitments that we needed at COP26. I think we’ve made incredible progress.

When you say nature-based solutions, what does that encompass?

Because we are a hard to decarbonize sector, it means that we will be involved in nature-based solutions, like the conservation of trees for many years, to come as a carbon emission offset. 

Do you need to retrofit planes to burn biofuel, or put new engines on? 

For biofuel, it works today. It’s called drop-in fuel. You just blend it with jet fuel and it goes onto the airplane. But to your point, we have a fuel team that’s been super active in this space for years. They are experts, and they probably talk to, on average, a couple startups a week in the biofuel space. There’s way more startups in biofuels than you probably know. And we get pinged all the time with different solutions, because there’s different feedstocks, there’s different technologies that you can use, there’s different locations of where they are. 

You’ve seen a real propensity to create biofuel on the west coast, because of incentives. But now we’re starting to get people that would like to produce in Louisiana and pipe it up to New York, or whatever it may be. We also surround ourselves with a lot of external experts to advise.

We talked about prices and green premiums. Is that a communication challenge to explain that there may be different fuel costs in the future, or other adjustments to pricing, because you as a customer are contributing to this journey to net-zero?

When we think about cost, we need to acknowledge that there are a lot of people that will look towards the green premium and participate. If you think about the automotive industry, you can see a clear path of how they’ve been able to take what was a green premium on top of an electric vehicle, and they have a clear path forward to try to bring that premium down, whether that’s government incentives, or scale [production] that plays a role. So it’ll be the same thing in the airline industry. 

I don’t want to just wait for my kids’ generation to find the solutions. You have to wake up every single day and say, “I’m going to take action.” 

To not acknowledge that there will be a green premium would be a falsehood. But there’s three groups that play in that — there’s the government, there’s the corporation and other corporations, and there’s the consumer. We’re not asking consumers to buy offsets the way other airlines are, the way most companies are, right now. We are just saying we’ve gone ahead and taken that step forward to neutralize. We’re going to look for other ways to engage our consumers to try to determine what’s the best path forward, because we also know that sustainability is not just environmental, but social sustainability. Delta has a commitment to equity globally. We don’t ever want to become that industry that goes back to [making it] prohibitive for certain communities to be able to travel by air.

Are there any interim metrics that you’ve created, to show that good things are happening?

We have sustainable aviation fuel metrics at 2030 — to have our fuel consumption at 10 percent biofuels by 2030. 2035 is an important marker, because that’s when we set a science-based target, which basically just means that our fuel efficiency is aligned to the Paris Agreement at 2035. And then you’ve got 2050, net-zero. What we’ll be working towards is setting even more interim targets for the rest of the decade. That’s what our investors have indicated they would like…metrics in 2022 and for 2023. Our ground support equipment — everything you see at the airport that’s not an airplane — we are electrifying that, because those are able to be done now. We just recently announced that we will be 50 percent electric at 2025. That’s a really important interim step for us. We’ll see more of those interim targets coming out.

What have been some of the interesting challenges or interesting growth dimensions for you personally?

It feels really hard sometimes, because it’s not as instantly gratifying as perhaps when I was in sales, when you sign a deal. You’re doing things now that will not come to fruition for many years — when you won’t even see it, perhaps. I wanted to be part of the solution for my kids. I don’t want to just wait for my kids’ generation to find the solutions. You have to wake up every single day and say, “I’m going to take action.” You have to know that it’s going to be incredibly challenging, but you surround yourself with a group of people who share your passion, share your interest, and you create these open dialogues and fruitful discussions.