The pressure is on to cut airplane emissions, but some airlines don’t yet want the planes that could help

Facing delays.
Facing delays.
Image: Reuters/Mariana Bazo
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The race among US carriers to fly more fuel-efficient aircraft is facing some delays.

Several airlines recently announced that they will postpone deliveries of aircraft that use less fuel than earlier models. It’s a way for airlines to curtail spending at a time when airfares have slumped and some carriers have seen declines in revenue per seat flown.

American Airlines, the largest US carrier, said earlier this month (July 22) that it will postpone the delivery of 22 Airbus A350 XWBs, a wide-bodied plane, by an average of 26 months to trim its spending by more than $1 billion in the next two years. Southwest Airlines said it would push back the delivery of 67 Boeing 737 Max airplanes by about three years.

There are takers for many of the planes, including Malaysia Airlines, which just announced it would buy 50 from Boeing, but US carriers could have to answer to higher standards soon.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday (July 25) said that greenhouse gases emitted from several jets are contributing to air pollution that “endangers public health and welfare” (pdf). The declaration is a necessary step before the government can issue firm caps on airlines’ emissions.

Commercial air travel accounts for about 2% of global carbon emissions, but the number of passengers is expected to double over the next two decades to about 7 billion a year. Governments are pressuring airlines to curb their emissions.

Airlines have for years been trying to cut down on fuel, not just for the environment but because it costs them a lot of money.

Fuel-efficient aircraft have become popular as a result. Boeing is considering ending production of its iconic 747 jumbo jet after it fell out of favor and airlines replaced it with planes that require less fuel. Airlines and plane-makers have also tried alternative fuels, such as cooking oil, lighter aircraft and even new coatings for planes so bug guts don’t stick to the exterior of the plane and slow it down. One airline recently used behavioral science to get pilots to cut down on their fuel use.

Fuel is an airline’s biggest variable cost. Fuel prices have slumped along with the price of oil in the last few years, so perhaps the imperative to reduce fuel consumption has become less pressing. But with US airlines potentially facing stricter standards they may not want to delay too long.