Over the last five years spent as JetBlue's director of sustainability, Sophia Mendelsohn has noticed co-workers and customers becoming more encouraging of eco-shifts. "I think this increased attention to environmental initiatives is a result of the fact that we're all feeling the pinch of climate change in our daily lives," she says. "People go back to the same vacation spots every year, and they see trash on the beach. They see sea level rise. They see sunny-day flooding in Miami. They see the effects of Katrina and Sandy. And they're feeling the heat year after year as temperatures creep up."
Ever since wheels first touched off the ground in 1903, planes have depended on fossil fuels to run. And though airlines continue to craft more fuel-efficient planes, the fuel source itself has remained generally unchanged. Though the auto industry has introduced more electric vehicles powered by natural resources over the years, restrictions on battery size have kept commercial airplanes from doing the same. This has left biofuel—a low-carbon alternative usually made of leftover agricultural residue—as the industry's most realistic option.
This shift toward renewables is just starting to stir. Last year, Alaska Airlines completed the first commercial flight run on biofuels: a Seattle to Washington, D.C., voyage powered in part by a blend of forest trimmings from the Pacific Northwest. United Airlines has now committed a portion of its flights out of LAX, and JetBlue just announced a 10-year renewable jet fuel purchase agreement of its own.
However, Mendelsohn predicts that it will be at least 10 years before airlines can start making changes on a larger scale, equating the market for biofuels to a startup that needs to scale up before prices can go down. "Running a plane on biofuels is safe, technically feasible, and physically possible. We know how to make them, and we know people want them. We're just working to get the quality and quantity up to bring the cost down," she says.
In the end, implementing the new system is going to be costly no matter which way you spin it. "Biofuels have been slow to catch on because there is so much more comfort and familiarity with refining regular fuel. To stop the wheels in motion of the whole system and begin to add in a new material has an associated startup cost. We either need to build new refineries, which is as expensive as it sounds, or we need to work with existing refineries to incorporate biofuels. Obviously, that would require these refineries to change their process and their systems, which takes a lot of work to do."
So your next flight may not be running on wood chips or nutshells anytime soon. In the meantime, Mendelsohn is working to implement smaller, more outward-facing initiatives to get people interested in, and excited about, sustainable travel. For example, JetBlue partners with small, sustainably minded producers to bring healthier food on board, and the company has even started a farm of its own at JFK airport—a green outcome among the concrete jungle where employees can escape to pick produce between flights. It also works with nonprofit The Ocean Foundation to research the economic value of eco-tourism to get big businesses on board in protecting the most pristine parts of our world.