Back to top

Green Champions – Air Canada is investing $10 billion in low emission aircraft

Air Canada jet
Air Canada is investing $10 billion in low emission aircraft
Renée Yardley
October 30 2017

Green Champions – Air Canada is investing $10 billion in low emission aircraft

In our “Conversations with Green Champions,” Rolland President Philip Rundle asks sustainability-minded organizations about their approach to environmental responsibility.

In the first part of a two-part interview, Teresa Ehman, P.Eng., Director, Environmental Affairs at Air Canada, covers commercial aviation’s landmark climate action plan, and Air Canada’s drive to improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions. She also talks about the green side of good business practices, with input on post-consumer paper from Joe Sorella, Manager, Corporate Services.

Air Canada is Canada’s largest passenger airline

  • Fleet of 381 aircraft flies to more than 200 destinations on six continents.
  • Some 30,000 employees worldwide served nearly 45 million customers last year.
  • Among Canada’s 100 largest corporations by revenue, and one of the world’s 20 biggest airlines by traffic.

How does Air Canada define environmental footprint?

TE: The effect our operations have on the environment, from using inputs like aviation fuel and other resources, to generating outputs like GHG (greenhouse gases) or wastes.  Reducing that footprint calls for understanding our environmental impacts, then saying: “What can we do about them?”  For example, 99 percent of Air Canada’s CO2 emissions come from aircraft engines, so that’s critical to our climate action strategy and efforts.

We layer our environmental effort against regulations and laws covering emissions, noise, hazardous waste generation, you name it, because as a responsible company, it is of utmost importance that we maintain compliance.

What is Air Canada’s broad approach to reducing GHG emissions?

TE: We have adopted a multi-prong approach, used widely in the industry that involves four pillars. These include new technology, such as our ongoing fleet renewal plan that will see us spend approximately $10 billion on new aircraft. Already between 1990 and 2016, Air Canada improved fleet fuel efficiency by 40 percent. In 2016 alone, fuel efficiency improved by 4.3 percent compared to 2015, and fuel efficiency projects combined saved over 13,800 tonnes of fuel or approximately 44,400 tonnes of CO2e (equivalent). We are also heavily involved supporting research into alternative fuels.

Another pillar is operational efficiency. To maximize the benefits of modern, fuel-efficient aircraft, it is necessary that they be operated in a manner that optimizes their capabilities. To do this, Air Canada continually refines its procedures, not only in flight, but also on the ground and in its maintenance activities. One project begun in 2016 aims to limit the use of aircraft auxiliary power units while on the ground and should be in effect in 2017.

A third pillar is infrastructure Air Canada has long advocated for improvements in this area and worked with partners, such as air traffic control management system operators, on ongoing initiatives to make the shortest, most direct routes available to aircraft. For example, using a new navigation procedure on a Calgary-Vancouver route allowed us to fly approaches on continuous descending path that we estimate could save between 160 to 500 kg of CO2e per approach, depending on the aircraft type.

Finally, there are market-based measures. Air Canada strives to mitigate its emissions of greenhouse gas is by participating in relevant industry associations and partnerships in efforts to develop and adopt appropriate market-based measures for reaching the industry’s goal of making the growth in international flights beyond 2020 carbon neutral.

Does this climate consensus apply across the aviation industry?

TE: Yes, which is no small thing, because it “takes a village” to fly commercially as an airline you need airports, airlines, air navigation service providers, airframe and engine manufacturers, along with other important aviation stakeholders. All major industry components are part of ATAG (Air Transport Action Group), which collectively aligns with the climate action targets and pillars.

Last fall, at the annual assembly of ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization, the UN body which governs the industry), the nations of the world agreed to the mechanism of the medium-term climate target – carbon neutral growth beyond 2020 (capping of net CO2 aviation emissions at 2020 levels).  This is a phenomenal consensus on a key market-based measure, considering the huge differences between airline operators around the world.

What is driving Air Canada’s $10 billion investment in new aircraft?

TE: Technology is the first pillar in our climate plan, and the best investment is in fuel efficient aircraft, because they can fly with much improved fuel efficiency Air Canada is in the midst of a 2015-2022 fleet renewal that will give us one of the youngest and most fuel-efficient fleets in the world.

This includes Boeing 787 Dreamliners and Boeing 737 MAX narrow-body aircraft. They are 20 and 14 percent, respectively, more fuel efficient than the aircraft they replace.

Do ongoing operational improvements make a difference?

TE: Yes! For example, adding winglets to the Boeing 767s improved their fuel efficiency by 2 percent. These advances add up: Air Canada improved aviation fuel efficiency by 4.3 percent in 2016 over 2015 – well ahead of IATA’s short-term climate target of a 1.5 percent reduction per year.

Our Materials and Process Engineer, from Air Canada Maintenance, pointed out that fewer coats of paint would save weight, so our marketing and branding people built that requirement into our new livery design. The difference is over 400 pounds on a Boeing 777.  Less paint will eliminate an average of 767 tonnes of carbon emissions per aircraft per year – and we have a fleet of 381!

Fuel efficiency has environmental and economic benefits since fuel is your top expense. How else do you pursue it?

TE: Our Fuel Efficiency Team is a significant initiative, because the benefits are lower costs and lower emissions. It includes people from many areas – operational excellence, maintenance, engineering, flight operations, environment, ground support. It meets quarterly with a rolling list of some 60 projects to assess, implement and review. My favorite is an aircraft engine wash maintenance program, because a washed engine is one to two percent more fuel efficient.

What other good business practices also have environmental benefits?

TE: Investments in energy efficient facilities – offices, hangars, maintenance centers all have an environmental benefit. Reducing waste, and reusing and recycling at our airport lounges, onboard and in our facilities also adds to lowering our environmental footprint. On Aircraft Clean Up Days, teams removed excess supplies like water bottles from aircraft cubbyholes, reducing weight by hundreds of pounds per aircraft.

JS: With paper Air Canada has broad environmental requirements, like FSC® certification, and beyond that we work with our suppliers to meet the specific needs of our internal customers. 

For example, we wanted to shift a monthly internal print magazine from virgin fiber paper to post-consumer paper – while retaining an equivalent finish and image quality – and we chose Rolland paper. It has the quality we need in print communications and reduces our environmental impact.