European airlines are mounting a unified front against the European Commission’s proposed climate legislation that aims to reduce carbon emissions by 55 percent from 1990 levels by the end of the decade.
“Airlines want to decarbonize. We have to decarbonize. But we need the means to do so,” Airlines for Europe (A4E) Managing Director Thomas Reynaert said at the trade group’s annual summit on March 31. He was joined by the CEOs of four of the the continent’s largest airline groups: EasyJet, International Airline Group (IAG), Lufthansa Group, and Ryanair.
Better known as “Fit for 55,” the legislation proposes to raise jet fuel taxes, tighten emissions trading rules, and increase sustainable aviation fuel — or SAF — blending requirements in order to reduce emissions. And while European airlines back efforts to reduce emissions and are committed to net zero emissions by 2050, they disagree with the means by which Fit for 55 would increase their costs without offering commensurate economic benefits.
“We all support the idea [of Fit for 55] and we all believe as Europeans that Europe, if it does it right, can serve as a role model, innovator for the world,” Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr said at the summit. But the reductions need to be done “while maintaining our competitiveness as the European aviation industry with other parts of the world.”
This is not the first time airline executives have objected to EU climate rules. The industry strongly objected to the EU’s inclusion of all flights to, from, and within the bloc in its aviation emissions trading program that was implemented in 2012. Foreign carriers were ultimately exempted from program in favor of a global approach under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which led to the development of Corsia program, which remains voluntary until 2027.
But the industry also has a point: Many of the investments needed in, for example SAF, cannot come from airlines alone. To scale SAF production to the point where it is a competitive with petroleum-based jet fuel will require billions of dollars of investment. Airline executives on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean say they cannot make this investment alone without government backing.
“With the right policy in place, 30 SAF plants could be built across Europe over the next eight years,” IAG CEO Luis Gallego said. By the industry’s estimate, with government support SAF could make up roughly 5 percent of global aviation fuel supplies by 2030, he added.
Across the Atlantic, U.S. airlines are also pushing for increased government support of SAF. United Airlines flew a Boeing 737 with one engine powered entirely by cooking oil-derived sustainable fuel to Washington, D.C., in December to garner support from lawmakers for the emerging sector. The U.S. is the global leader in SAF production with many global airlines, including Lufthansa and Qantas Airways, blending the fuels with traditional jet A at airports in California.
Implementing the EU’s stalled air traffic control modernization initiative, Single European Sky, is another way European leaders could meet climate goals and help the industry, the executives said. First proposed in 1999, the plan calls for removing national borders from air traffic control and make other reforms to improve the efficiency of air traffic management over Europe. Airlines estimate that, if fully implemented, a Single European Sky alone could reduce carbon emissions by 10-15 percent. However, the initiative has stalled amid national interests of individual member states.
“The air traffic management people, I believe … they don’t understand this change,” EU Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean said of Single European Sky at the summit. “And, maybe, the authorities aren’t courageous enough to make this push.”
Ryanair Group CEO Michael O’Leary put it more bluntly. “Single European Sky has failed … Let’s liberalize European air traffic management, and let [individual organizations] compete with each other.”
O’Leary cited the frequent strikes by French air traffic controllers, which manage the airspace between Ireland and the UK and many of popular beach spots on the Mediterranean, as an example of the broken system. These strikes delay flights and force length reroutings that, he said, increase carbon emissions in addition to other added costs.
Despite the calls for changes to the European Commission’s Fit for 55 proposals, European airlines are making other strides in reducing their emissions. Most are focused on renewing their fleets with more fuel efficient aircraft to meet short-term goals, for example Air France-KLM in December committed to up to 160 Airbus A320neo family aircraft to update the KLM and Transavia fleets. And others, including Finnair and Lufthansa, are introducing bus and rail alternatives to short domestic flights under the guise of reducing emissions.
The European Commission aims to enact the Fit for 55 legislation into law sometime this year.