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Continental Airlines: Fly the VOC-Friendly Skies?

Leon Kaye | Wednesday March 10th, 2010 | 1 Comment

Celebrating its commitment to the environment, Continental Airlines is giving its planes a makeover, broadcasting its “eco-friendly skies.” Many corporations including Continental are working on reducing their carbon footprint, integrating sustainable practices on their supply chain and distribution channels, and finding alternative sources of energy to fuel their operations.  Companies like Google, GE, and Unilever are arguably leaders, either for greening their data centers, reducing waste at their manufacturing centers, or developing technologies that reduce dependence on fossil fuels.  Other corporations implement sustainable policies on one hand, but still have a troubling environmental impact:  Walmart paints its roof white, but still sells cheap goods that devour resources, including the fuel that hauls them; Coca-Cola is trending towards greener plastic in its bottles, but through its marketing materials, dismisses municipalities’ concerns over the amount of bottles that end up in landfills, and Apple touts sustainability but recently shot down two shareholder proposals related to sustainability reporting and management.

Which leads us back to Continental.  The Houston-based company is an impressive case study its how new management turned this company around during the 1990s.  Despite a difficult economic climate, Continental is still the USA’s fourth largest airline and is widely admired by its rivals.  In January 2009, Continental turned heads with a test flight over Houston, a twin-engine 737 fueled by oils from jatropha and algae mixed with traditional jet fuel. 
The biofuel experiment is not the only step Continental has taken in reducing its environmental impact:  the company has invested US$12 billion in more fuel-efficient aircraft and equipment, resulting in an average per-mile decreased fuel consumption of 45%.  Passengers have the option to offset their flight’s carbon emissions for a small fee, and can donate money to renewable energy or reforestation projects.  Its maintenance professionals coat Continental’s planes with PreKote, a chromium-free surface treatment that eliminates hazardous chemicals used on planes before they are painted, improving working conditions while reducing water consumption.

But the biofuel test flight 14 months ago receives the most media coverage, despite the fact that Continental has not run another test flight since.  Perhaps there are compelling reasons:  the fuels Continental used are still untested.  Jatropha, a flowering plant found in the tropics, is still grown on small plots in remote areas, is labor intensive to harvest, is invasive to the point that Western Australia banned its cultivation, and requires about 23 inches of rain a year to thrive.  Indeed, the plant can thrive in poor soil, its roots can prevent erosion, and has the potential to produce about 10 times the amount of fuel per hectacre than corn.  Overall, however, jatropha oil cannot yet scale to the business needs of an fuel-dependent industry such as commercial aviation.

Algae-derived fuels also have their challenges:  harvesting algae and processing it into fuel is expensive, requires huge amounts of water, and such facilities harvesting algae, from ponds to enclosed tanks, can easily become contaminated.  Currently algae performs well in the lab, but is not ready for wide distribution.

Continental Airlines, however, is bullish on the future of biofuels for its fleet–or at least its public relations department believes so.

Considering the financial problems confronting the airlines, spraying money away on paint–whether it is free of VOCs (volatile organic compounds, the environmental bane of paint) or not–makes one wonder if a two-hour test flight of an empty plane is a step forward for reducing Continental’s carbon footprint, or a deft maneuver to make the company look green in its corporate sustainability report.  Could the new paint jobs have waited?


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