Balancing the environment and your bottom line: A chat on sustainability
Sustainability is critical to our industry's future. From the board room to operations, airlines are embracing strategies to fight climate change and accelerate the path to decarbonization, all while keeping an eye on a healthy bottom line.
[I’m Vince Palmiere, Chief Financial Officer] at ATPCO and joining me for our session on sustainability is Amelia DeLuca, the managing director of sustainability at Delta Air Lines. Hi, Amelia, how are you?
Hi, Vince. Thank you for having me here today.
Thank you for joining me. This is really exciting stuff. Before we get into it, I was wondering if you could just give us a minute to provide an overview, background on yourself.
Certainly. Well, it's absolutely, as I mentioned, a pleasure to be here. I am an airline veteran, this is the only thing I’ve ever done. I joined Northwest Airlines right out of college and I’ve never looked back. I’ve moved through Delta's commercial organization over a 15-year career, and when Delta offered me this incredible opportunity to move into sustainability and shape the work that we're doing, I just couldn't resist it. It's a passion of mine personally and to be able to combine that personal passion with professional work is a dream come true. So excited, Vince, to have this dialogue and to share a little bit about what Delta is doing, as well as what the entire airline industry is doing.
Well, great, thank you. I can see why you're excited about your role. So let's get into it.
So Delta's established a leadership position in airline sustainability. Last year Delta made a one billion dollar commitment to become the first carbon neutral airline and proclaim that carbon neutrality is here.
How did you set out to achieve this, and what are the critical components of your strategy?
So what we did when we made that decision was acknowledge the fact that our consumers today, our travelers, are facing a conflict and we want to take that conflict away from them. And that that conflict is, and especially the younger generation that is starting to travel more and more whether it's for business or for leisure, that they want to be part of helping to save the planet. That they want to be part of the solution when it comes to climate change, but that they also love travel, and not just in a superficial way. But travel is what connects people to places, and people to people, and people to opportunities. I don't need to tell anyone here that travel is more than just travel, right? It's what society is built on. And in fact, the only way we're actually going to address climate change is if we indeed can travel and be together to be able to innovate and have real life conversations because these are really, really big problems.
And so carbon neutrality allows Delta the opportunity to take action now. It's really important to make those long-term commitments. It's really important. We saw this week IATA came out with a commitment to net zero at 2050. A number of airlines, Delta included, have science-based targets, which means in 2035, all those airlines and probably the majority of us will adhere to that. It says that our sector will align to the Paris agreement. And those are really important milestones as we combat climate change. But there's a tool available today, and carbon neutrality just essentially means I take responsibility for my emissions today. We are going to continue to emit, of course, we're an industry that is driven by jet fuel, 98 percent of our carbon footprint comes from jet fuel. But there's also tools available today. You've got things in our control. You've got fleet renewals, operational efficiencies, and of course the scaling of biofuel. But then there's also a real-world problem in deforestation. And deforestation actually leads to more greenhouse gas emissions, five times more than the airline industry. And so carbon neutrality again is an acknowledgement that there is a tool available today in the form of carbon offsets to help prevent deforestation and to neutralize the emissions that we're causing. And so for us, we're so proud of being able to go back to our consumers now and say, you don't have to choose between seeing and saving the world. That at Delta, we've got your back and we will continue to be committed to carbon neutrality.
Oh, that's interesting, thank you. The one follow-up for you, a question that was related to the balancing of your investments and sustainable initiatives relative to the profit motives that Delta has as an investor-owned, publicly traded company. How do you balance those competing priorities?
I think in the past that was a really hard discussion for corporations to have because it was always this conflict of investing in sustainability, which does come with the price tag. We all see that in our day-to-day lives. We make those trade-offs in our day-to-day lives. Do I want to pay more for this brand of shoe or this brand of clothing or an extra recycling system so I can recycle my bottles? I mean, we're all making those trade-offs day by day. And so I think corporations at the beginning, especially in the airline industry where we know profitability is typically razor-thin and something that we watch closely, those are hard conversations. But the acceleration of sustainability and more broadly ESG in the last 18 to 24 months, especially from investors, puts at the forefront the risk of not prioritizing sustainability from an investor standpoint. I’ll come back to consumers.
And from an investor standpoint it just means essentially that there are real-world costs that will come for companies that cannot transition, and we don't have to look too much farther than the oil and gas industry to see where some of those problems are coming in, where they're getting told what they need to do or they're losing access to capital. And so I think part of it is kind of anticipating what the future cost may be if we don't deal with it now, essentially.
And then from a consumer perspective, it's pretty straightforward. This is the number one issue for them. We polled a number of our Sky Miles members just a couple months ago and said there's a whole host of different things that the airlines participate in, trying to do good in the world. What is the number one issue to you? And resoundingly it's sustainability. And they want, and it's probably no surprise here, they don't want to just be responsible for their emissions themselves, they first want governments to play a role. And we'll come back to that, Vince, I’m sure later, talk about the role of governments. And then they want corporates to play a role before we go to the end consumer and say, actually you're responsible for this.
So again you're going to have this kind of cycle of trust, and Delta is a brand that's built on trust and purpose, that's going to be built from this carbon neutrality commitment. And so we may not see it at this exact moment, but this is this is a marathon. And we are like not even in the first mile of this, and so over time it's definitely going to build Delta up as a brand which is really important to us.
Good, yeah. We do touch on investors, government, and consumers as we walk through this, but before we get there, I did want to want to step back with respect to what you think is the biggest driver, or drivers, that is pushing Delta to take such a leading position in sustainability. Is it coming from corporate leadership, from government mandates, or you mentioned consumer feedback, or is it with the employees from the ground up? Yeah, how do you see this?
I think we always at Delta have always talked about kind of the virtuous circle, I suppose. That it's employees, and if employees are happy, they take care of our customers. And if customers are happy, then they take care of our stakeholders and our shareholders. And so I think it's the same cycle here for sustainability. I think it's our employees. We're very passionate about this issue. We have a large, what's called a business resource group. It's our largest at Delta, is the one that's focused on sustainability. We've got 3,000 plus members and growing by the day who are saying, I want to make a difference in my day job.
And then that very naturally leads into consumers. Consumers are also very worried about this, as I mentioned. And consumers have always been at the forefront of every decision that Delta has made. And again you don't have to look much further than the pandemic to see our middle seat block was exactly that. It was a decision to take care of our customers before anything else, our employees and our customers. And that will, of course, lead to benefits with shareholders.
But I will say we do engage quite a bit with our shareholders, though. They're a driving force of what we do. Many of you here with us today probably know the role that Larry Fink plays as the CEO of BlackRock. And so BlackRock as an investor is essentially saying we're only going to invest in companies that are playing a leading role in this space, and so we are very much listening to what our investors want right now.
Great, really interesting. Okay, good. So you mentioned the pandemic. Let's talk about the impact of that on sustainability initiatives within the airline industry. We've seen a range of reactions from the airlines. In some cases sustainability efforts have
been deprioritized, if you will, but in other airlines such as Delta, it seems like the pandemic has accelerated things. Can you share your views on what you see transpiring here?
Well, I think it's different by region, and I do want to talk more broadly before I get to Delta because I’m very humbled to be here today representing Delta, but I also recognize that I am representing my counterparts at all the major airlines, both Delta partner airlines and my U.S. airline counterparts. And what's really cool about sustainability is that it's a space where we can collaborate. Normally airlines are the fiercest of competitors. We do not talk to our counterparts, in the United States in particular, but when it comes to sustainability, it's actually it, all for one and one for all type of mentality. And so I think what you've seen from the pandemic is not only an increasing urgency from those stakeholders that I just mentioned, you've also seen an increased desire to collaborate in new ways. And that's opening up doors and opportunities and helping speed up some of the work that is coming. And I’ll point to a couple examples of areas actually where you'd probably be surprised to know.
Of course, Europe, you're seeing a huge acceleration there. Some of that is driven by government mandates that are coming, but the European airlines certainly have just an immense amount of knowledge in this space. They've been working hard at it for a while so I can say that most of us probably work closely with our European counterparts. But LATAM, of course, which is a partner of Delta’s who's been one of those airlines that's been hit so hard during the pandemic and has been through bankruptcy and all of that, they have some of the most ambitious waste goals out there. So onboard waste. They're working on getting to onboard waste almost faster than a number of other airlines that I know, and I think it just shows that acknowledgement that, although there are some hardships of the pandemic, the ability to still be ambitious, even if it's a little bit further in the future. It's definitely the time to set those ambitions because then as we come out of the pandemic, we will shape our business around those ambitions and those targets. You don't want to wait because then you're going to be too late to set the ambition. And so I think that's where the alliance is coming out, not only between, again Delta and its partners, but all the airlines just saying we've got to do more, we've got to move a little bit faster.
And again I think travel is just so near and dear to all of our hearts that we don't want to end up as one of those industries that didn't make it through this transition. And again we see paths forward and they're emerging every single day, and so that's what I think makes that acceleration possible.
Okay, great. You mentioned investors, so let's circle back on that topic and look at this from a capital perspective. There's a lot of money flowing into environmental, social, and governance investments, or ESG funds, that invest in companies that meet specific sustainability criteria. One estimate has ESGs as growing to more than 50 trillion dollars by 2025.
Now, a company can benefit from this by having access to these investment dollars by lowering their cost of capital. Is this something that's given a lot of consideration, and how are you seeing this dynamic play out within the investor community that follows the aviation industry?
It's a great timing for that question. We just completed our ESG listening tours where we met with some of our top investors both in terms of the ownership of Delta but also those investors that are most active in this space to understand just at a very high level what it is, how they're grading us, how they're grading airlines, what are they looking for, what is that balance between action now and ambition in the future, as well as transparency and the disclosure of activities. And so I think we have a really good sense right now of what is driving investors, and I think that's the first step.
And then I think right after that comes exactly what you just said, Vince, how do we create win-win situations where investors who feel confident in certain corporations are able to help them accelerate the work they do? And that's where you can definitely see those benefits to the cost of capital for airlines who are going out on a limb and making commitments to ESG-type activities. I will say that has not been as present in the airline industry as you've seen in other industries, and I think it's probably just the nature of the pandemic more than anything else. We focused on liquidity in a really different way, but I think it's something that is coming for our industry and something I know we talk a lot about internally with our finance and our treasury and our investor relations teams.
And then I think there's the doomsday scenario which I don't get too caught up in, but I do try to make sure that I’m thinking about, which is you see companies that have had problems with financing access to capital on shareholder proposals, or you've seen these kind of activist investors come in and say, I don't think you're doing the right thing, or you're not going fast enough, or I want to see more, and then there's huge ramifications. And so I think right now there's a balance between the carrot and the stick, and I think we'll see over time which one again gets people to move the fastes.t I think it'll always be a mix. Every company is a little bit different in how they engage with investors, the speed at which they're moving, the capital dollars that they're putting behind the activities, but I think again that's the investors to me are actually not a scary thing at all. They're one of the most, one of the greatest benefits we have is to understand what our investors want and then trying to work with them to make sure that because of our activities that we're able to benefit either from the cost of capital or just ensuring that we will have capital for the long term.
All right, great, thank you. You mentioned your outreach to customers earlier, so I want to circle back on the customer perspective here. Are you seeing your sustainability efforts have an impact on customer acquisition or retention? And does the message resonate more with specific customer segments, such as millennials who may prioritize sustainability efforts higher than other travelers?
Yes. So first and foremost, I will just say we have focused, all of us collectively, have told our travelers for the last 18 plus months that safety is our number one priority. Our customer safety, our employee safety. And that of course was driven by the pandemic and the most important thing to do, and that's why you haven't heard from a lot of the airlines probably until kind of late spring this year even into summer on sustainability. A lot of us held back, say, we don't want to distract the message here. If people are traveling right now they're not worried about their environmental footprint, they're traveling because it's critical travel. And the thing they care about is safety: will I get there, what happens if my test goes wrong, a whole host of issues.
So as we emerge from the pandemic, of course it's setting that baseline about awareness and then what resonates with customers. So in that survey I mentioned earlier, one of the things we found was that there is a general lack of awareness for what carbon neutrality is, just understanding what does that mean, how is that different than net zero. And then with that we also found that we are below where we would like to be with consumer awareness of our carbon neutrality commitment, which ties really well to our marketing campaign that just launched last month that you will see run through the end of the year. It's got a beautiful commercial, it's got a lot of activation on our website as well as third party sites just talking about this concept of carbon neutrality and not choosing between seeing the world and saving the world. And so for us, our number one thing right now is to get that message out that Delta is carbon neutral, and you should care that we are carbon neutral because that's a very big commitment and it's making an impact immediately. The other thing we saw in that survey, though, that guides our plans going forward, no surprise, consumers are really attracted to understanding what an airline is doing from its fleet perspective. I think that resonates because people understand about cars, right? I purchase a more fuel-efficient car, I purchase an electric car, and they're kind of I think wondering/feeling very connected to an airline who's talking about its fleet strategy. Which again, is something airlines have always done, but you're going to see that I think accelerated, and how we put our fleet front and center in terms of sustainability.
Then you've got sustainable aviation fuel, which consumers are starting to become aware of. And I think over time, at least what we're seeing in Europe, is consumers actually participate in purchasing sustainable aviation fuel for their individual travel. Today in the U.S. we mostly see that through the corporations who are purchasing sustainable aviation fuel in order to address their own business travel emissions. But I think over time you're going to see that come into consumers.
And then in terms of the groupings, what I mentioned earlier is actually really interesting by age grouping, and I think it surprises people a little bit. So that concept of government is the one first responsible for someone's travel emissions, then business, then individual. I asked a group of people yesterday, so what do you think that looks like for the younger generation? And they said, well, no they probably feel like they are more responsible for their emissions at an individual level. And I said, no, actually not, because the generation that's coming behind us, while so passionate about sustainability, are also kind of fed up and saying, I’ve inherited a problem and I shouldn't be the sole person responsible for this. And so what you're actually finding is with our younger generation, not even millennials, Gen Zs at this point, you're finding that companies that take responsibility for their business travel footprint as a foundation and then offer ways for them to engage, that's actually the perfect match. That it doesn't work if we just pass things on to them. It has to be a, almost a one-for-one. Company does this, and then they give me the opportunity to also do this. So it's a feel-good, plus it shows that the company's taking responsibility. So again that's very aligned with our carbon neutral commitment.
Great, yeah. You mentioned the commercial you launched last month. I did get a chance to see it and encourage everyone who hasn't to go check it out. So good stuff.
All right, so we talked about customers. You'd mention regulations, so let's move on to governments. So if you look at governments around the world, they're at various stages of regulation related to sustainability. I read recently that here in the U.S. the SEC is actually moving forward with a requirement for public companies to disclose more information about how they're responding to climate change. So where do you see the most significant progress and where are we lagging behind, and is it fair to say that many airlines like Delta just aren't waiting for government regulation in order to move forward with sustainability efforts?
Well, I can say unequivocally at the very top that I am so impressed with the airline industry's speed of refocusing and amplifying our efforts on sustainability, whether it's when I meet with my partners under SkyTeam or again my U.S. counterparts, I think everyone is saying, how do we get out in front of this? How do we anticipate what's coming from government so that we can be in charge of our destiny? And I know there's a number of viewers who are probably on here connected into Europe.
And so just to break down what you're seeing in the world in terms of how governments are getting involved in this. So the most simple kind of way to think about it is Europe is going down a path of mandates, which essentially says that they're going to say, for example, starting next year in France all fuel producers must produce one percent of their fuel, or their jet fuel must be produced with sustainable aviation fuel. That's a mandate. You're starting to see some additional mandates beyond just this sector, but carbon pricing, carbon taxing. Those are the sorts of things we call mandates just because of the fact that it's not really an incentive, it's just kind of like, if you emit carbon or if you do this, you will either pay for that carbon or you will pay a penalty if you do not address your footprint in the way that we'd like you to. Interesting model. I think we'll see how it plays out. I feel very lucky to have so many European airline partners as part of my life because I think they're keeping us up to speed on what that looks like.
And then you move into the U.S. and we always talk about the concept of incentives is what we're focused on in the U.S. right now. The Biden administration has actually been wonderfully supportive of that. In the bills that are being reconciled right now is a blenders tax credit which is an incentive for sustainable aviation fuel producers to help acknowledge the fact that sustainable aviation fuel is pretty much the only solution that is here today to start to bring our carbon footprint down. But at a cost that's three to five times as high as jet fuel, you're not going to have the right demand. If you don't have the right demand from airlines and customers, you're not going to have the right supply. And so an incentive like this allows those producers to be able, I would just mention, sustainable aviation fuel producers are typically startups. So capital matters to them right now and future demand matters to them right now. And so the blenders tax credit or that incentive is essentially going to allow them to be able to get up and running in a way that gives them confidence that there will be a desire for their product when they're finally able to produce. And many of them are coming online in 2024, 2025, so it's really exciting with large amounts of volume, actually. We've got four producers lined up in the 2024-2025 period, and all of them, we're all banking on those incentives being there. And so it will be very challenging if that if that doesn't come to fruition.
And then you mentioned the SEC. The SEC, for those that do not know, went out in the spring and essentially indicated that they were going to increase requests for how companies disclose their climate work. Their climate footprint, their carbon footprint today, their greenhouse gas footprint, as well as the activities that they're doing behind it. And the desire there, of course, from the SEC's perspective is to make sure there isn't green washing and to make sure that investors know the companies that they are investing in, what they're actually doing, because it's very hard today. We always joke sustainability is generally the wild, wild west and reporting on sustainability is just as much the wild, wild west. And so we personally, Delta as well as under our trade association, A4A, sent in letters of support for that activity within the SEC. We want standardized reporting, we want reporting that gives people confidence in what we're doing. In the meantime, we have gone ahead and we, Delta and again many of my counterparts here, we have ESG reports or annual corporate responsibility reports, where they're long and everyone doesn't love that they're 80 pages, but there is a lot of information in there that says this is what we emit, this is how we emit it. Let's talk about not just jet fuel but talk about our ground support equipment. Let's talk about waste that comes off the airplane. So it's setting out there and saying this is what we're doing. So that's a really important part of disclosure, and then it sets the ambition as well as tracks the progress. So things that have been in there for a long time for us is fuel efficiency annually, because fuel efficiency is directly tied to our carbon intensity as a company. And so we personally welcome the work that the SEC is doing. We're actually anticipating it and I know a number of airlines are also.
Our trade associations do a lot of work preparing us. There's these different standards that are out there that I think we're expecting the SEC to likely take these standards and say, this is what all companies must use going forward. One is TCFD, and the only reason I mention that is that it's a pretty cool model. It's very comprehensive but it forces every company to say, here are my risks when it comes to climate, and here's the potential financial impact and what are the physical risks. So I have an airport located in a certain location that may have extensive flooding in the future. It's calling out those risks so that we can be transparent with investors so that they can again make the most informed decisions on how to support. And so it's an exciting time from a government perspective. I think we'll see what plays out. We've got mandates, incentives, and then just a general focus on disclosure. I think all are welcome right now, but especially, at least from the Delta perspective, very focused on the incentives and very focused on the standardization of disclosure.
Okay, great. You've mentioned sustainable alternative fuels and waste reduction, and when people talk about airline sustainability, they tend to focus on emissions and alternative fuels. But waste reduction is a crucial part of the equation. Can you describe Delta's work on waste, recycling, and the impact of the efforts there?
Well, it is really interesting, Vince, to your point that the biggest impact we make on the planet, as I mentioned is jet fuel, 98 percent of our carbon footprint. But what consumers see is not jet fuel. Consumers get on an airplane and they see waste, and they see plastic water bottles and plastic cups, and they see food, and they see products, and they wonder how those products are sourced. And so for us right now when it comes to waste, recycling, and just generally the products that we carry on board, we're really stepping back and thinking about, okay, what's our ambition? How are we going to get there? So our vision is zero impact aviation, which just means we're not only addressing our carbon footprint but we're addressing the waste that comes off of our airplanes. We also have an opportunity with every product that we procure on board to make sure we're we are partnering with socially sustainable vendors. Vendors that are either local companies, small businesses, or just have absolutely wonderful, kind of a wonderful story to tell about how the products are created.
And so I would say some of that you're going to see soon. Obviously during the pandemic plastic bags were the name of the game because we had to make sure that everything was clean, but you've seen those, start to move away from those and we've been able to move back into what is our kind of core when it comes to this. So Delta was one of the first airlines to recycle passenger aluminum cans, plastic cups, and bottles, newspapers, and magazines. Since 2007 we've recycled more than three million pounds of aluminum on board, and you actually get a rebate from that, which is really cool. So we fully funded twelve Habitat for Humanity homes from that aluminum on board.
Of course during the pandemic one of the things we accelerated was that we removed Sky magazine. And I do hear mixed reviews about that, certain people love Sky magazine, but Sky magazine of course had, it was four million pounds of printed paper annually, and that also has weight, which means that it causes more fuel. Which is something that's really interesting just in general about onboard sourcing of products. It's just an acknowledgment that while you might have a product that feels like, take the plastic cup for example, you want to move to an aluminum product or an aluminum cup. Those can weigh more, which means you actually burn more fuel, and so that's the kind of thing we talk about all the time in sustainability is, what is our ambition? Try to find that north star and then try to make sure we just take incremental steps in everything that we do because we haven't got it fully right yet, but we know what we need to do. And just at a very high level what that means is essentially we've got to be on top of our waste and our single-use plastics, and we've got to accelerate the work. And you're going to see more from Delta as we move into next year on both of those.
Okay. But we only have a few minutes left, so I guess I’m going to wrap up with this question for you. What could all of us do to make air travel more sustainable?
The adoption of sustainable initiatives make that happen at a much quicker pace, so first and foremost I think we need to get the message out about what the industry is doing. And so no matter where you are in the world today, and no matter what your job function is, I am confident you are dealing with consumers. You are dealing with investors. You are dealing with media. And we all have to be aligned in telling the story that this industry matters to the world and that it cannot not exist in the future. That we will solve this problem together. And I am just so optimistic about that, although again, we are a hard to decarbonize sector. It just means for us there's no easy solution, and it is going to be pretty dang close to 2050 until we get to net zero. But we have a plan, we have tools available today, we have ways in which we can collaborate today, like things I mentioned on sustainable aviation fuel is a great way for many of us to come together and say, we need either government help, we can come up with corporate and customer programs.
And then I think that one of the best things that we can do is also just again respect the tools that are out there. Carbon offsets are always a mixed bag on how people feel about those, but those are a viable option today that can make a difference in our fight against climate change. And so I think first off is getting the message out and respecting what this industry is doing, and then I think just finding your connection to it at a very personal level, because this is hard work. It's really daunting. Everyone that is on here today, I am certain you are starting to feel it more and more, sustainability is creeping into your day job no matter what your day job is. It's starting to creep into your day job, and for those of us that are kind of in it every day, it feels scary, feels very overwhelming. And so what climate scientists say to do, who sometimes also are faced with this thing of, what do I do? There's so much here, I don't know where to get started. What can I do?
Climate scientists recently did a survey and the main thing that came out was just do something, even if it's little. So whether that's within your company, within your personal life, just do something that makes you feel like you were having an incremental value add. And so I got a member of my team just a little thing, to say every month she takes a new sustainability activity and integrates into her life. No more plastic bags, no more products that were sourced in this way. Whatever your journey is, personal, professional, I think just know that, take those little steps forward and don't give up, because it's going to take all of us. But I’m super confident that this industry is going to be able to weather this challenge.
All right, fantastic. So unfortunately that takes us to the end of our time here. Really enjoyed the conversation. I really appreciate you spending some time with us to talk about a passion of yours, not only of the professional journey of yours but your passion as well. So thanks very much, Amelia.
Thank you, Vince, for having me and thank you all for tuning in.
All right, take care.
Elevate 2021 is a virtual conference that powers the exchange of ideas for the future of flight shopping.
Chief Financial Officer, ATPCO
Vince joined ATPCO in June 2019 as an accomplished, team-oriented leader with a background in financial planning and analysis, accounting, strategy, and investor relations in both large corporate settings and high growth environments. He leads and oversees the finance, accounting, financial planning and analysis, internal audit, tax, and treasury areas of the business. Before joining ATPCO, Vince held executive leadership roles at VBX Solutions, WeddingWire, and Nasdaq.