The number of passengers projected to travel worldwide is projected to double the next 20 years, which poses a huge dilemma for the global aviation sector. On one hand, the international travel boom offers countless business opportunities. But just about every airline CEO knows that their companies’ stakeholders are keen on the industry becoming far more responsible and sustainable. One obvious solution is tackling the emissions this carbon-intensive sector generates due to its ravenous consumption of fossil fuels.
But the promise of alternative jet fuel has been a hollow one for airlines. The Netherlands' national carrier, KLM, is one of many companies that strive to incorporate more biofuels into its energy portfolio. In 2009, KLM was the first airline to haul passengers other than flight crew on a one-hour flight fueled partly by camelina oil. In recent years, the company has experimented with blends of conventional and alternative jet fuels, including mixes of kerosene and fuel derived from used cooking oil. Flights across Europe were sometimes fueled by a 50-50 blend of kerosene and recycled vegetable oil; for a while, a weekly flight from New York’s JFK Airport to Amsterdam crossed the Atlantic using a similar blend. Currently KLM is in the midst of a three-year contract to source biofuels for a flight it operates from Los Angeles to Amsterdam.
But the problem KLM and its competitors face is scalability. “Technical, social, and regulatory barriers have limited both the production of bio-derived jet fuel and the growth of the industry,” concluded a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) report issued earlier this year.
The result is a huge challenge for KLM, as its parent company, Air France-KLM, has set a target to reduce its emissions 20 percent from 2011 levels by 2020.
KLM’s investment in the Boeing 787-9, or the Dreamliner, is key to the company’s drive to reduce its carbon footprint and groom its sustainable travel credentials. KLM recently invited TriplePundit to fly on trans-Atlantic flights to Amsterdam and experience one of the airline’s key strategies in reducing its global emissions.
Flying aboard a Dreamliner is definitely a step up from traveling on older models of Airbus and Boeing aircraft. The first thing one notices is how relatively quiet the plane is compared to the A330, 747 or 777 families. The interior lighting, which the cabin crew can modify in order to recreate various stages of day and night, is far easier on tired eyes. LEDs and dimmable windows (no more flapping window shades!) allow one to readjust slowly back to daylight after napping on a flight.
In addition, say good-bye to that claustrophobic feeling in coach in the event one’s flight is aboard a trans-oceanic flight crammed within a single-aisle 737 or A320; even on a full flight, the Dreamliner feels far more spacious. And of course, a seat in KLM’s business class makes for a sublime journey. The reverse-herringbone configuration of those seats and flat beds, which is becoming standard even on older aircraft, allows one to cocoon and minimize any social interaction during the flight. KLM’s corporate responsibility team explained that the consumer experience was critical to the company’s overall strategy, and that vibe is certainly evident aboard flying aboard one of its Dreamliners.
But the Dreamliner’s environmental street cred is what really makes this plane stand out. The quiet flight is in part made possible by the carbon fiber composite that comprises the aircraft’s body. Furthermore, the plane’s engines, which emit sounds at 85 decibels (the equivalent of street traffic), also consumes about 30 percent less fuel than comparable passenger airplanes, giving KLM a boost as it seeks to tackle those pesky emissions reduction goals.
Across its fleet, KLM claims to be doing whatever it can to mitigate its flights’ carbon footprint. KLM’s corporate responsibility team explained that each Dreamliner is painted using 15 percent less material that what is typically applied, and the paint is also formulated so that it can be cleaned with a simple soap and water solution – allowing the company’s maintenance team to avoid solvents toxic to the environment. On board the Dreamliner, the carpets, made by Desso, may not appear at a first glance to be anything special, but KLM says they are recycled fibers made of old KLM uniforms and aircraft carpeting.
Even tweaks within cargo section of a Dreamliner contribute to KLM’s push to reduce emissions. Netting used to secure cargo is made of a lightweight polyethylene fiber that the airline says is 50 percent lighter than the usual standard aboard similar aircraft – and it has a longer lifespan of five years instead of three.
Additional details may escape the weary traveler, but KLM says they boost the airline’s quest to reduce emissions. The trolleys that roll along the planes’ aisles are as much as 17 pounds lighter than previous ones used – which on a long flight eliminates over 880 pounds of materials that otherwise would have been hauled. Even the meal trays, made of a lightweight polyethylene, can help reduce a flight’s load by 35 pounds – a number not to be sniffed at when multiplied by the number of daily and annual flights KLM operates.
The Dutch can certainly be stereotyped as pragmatic, and this certainly applies to KLM’s ethos. Sure, the Netherlands has a reputation for being forward-thinking on sustainability, and that mantra was certainly repeated during 3p’s visit to various corporate offices. But there are limits to how far KLM will go to reduce its emissions. Don’t expect boxed wine to appear on a trolley anytime soon. The same goes for the iconic Delft ceramic blue houses that KLM has given to its business class passengers since the 1950s. “The consumer experience is still very important to KLM,” explained a member of KLM’s corporate responsibility team during a presentation given to 3p and other media representatives last week.
To date, KLM says all these efforts have resulted in at least a 13.5 percent decrease in emissions since 2011 – making that 20 percent reduction goal by 2020 a realistic proposition. The efficiencies the Dreamliner provides KLM will play a huge role in helping the airline meet its goals --compromising the customer experience at 30,000 feet.
Image credit: KLM
Disclosure: KLM funded Leon Kaye’s trip to Amsterdam. Neither the author nor TriplePundit were required to write about the experience.
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media. His previous work can be found at The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.