United wants passengers to donate money to sustainable jet fuel. But is it better than carbon offsets for saving the planet?

Lauren Zumbach, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

United Airlines is giving customers who want to reduce the environmental impact of their travel a way to buy sustainable jet fuel that releases fewer emissions than traditional jet fuel.

The Chicago-based airline has already secured commitments from about a dozen companies using the program to help offset emissions from employee travel or their supply chain, including Deloitte, HP, Boston Consulting Group, Nike, Siemens and Takeda Pharmaceuticals. The companies will collectively purchase a total of 3.4 million gallons of sustainable fuel this year, Chicago-based United said Tuesday.

Individual passengers will be able to contribute money to a pool of cash United will use either to subsidize the airline’s purchase of sustainable jet fuel, which can be more than twice as expensive as traditional jet fuel, or invest in companies developing sustainable jet fuel and other technologies to reduce the industry’s emissions, the airline said.

“There’s a long way to go to make sustainable aviation fuel viable, economically possible and scalable to the point where it can make a real difference,” United CEO Scott Kirby said. “That’s going to require a lot of R&D support, a lot of work to build the economies of scale and drive down the cost curve.”

Several airlines, including United, already give customers one option to reduce the environmental impact of their travel: carbon offsets, which let buyers cancel out emissions from a flight by funding programs that reduce emissions elsewhere over time, like forest conservation.

United doesn’t know how many passengers are interested in funding greener fuel, but some have expressed skepticism about the impact of carbon offsets, said Lauren Riley, United’s managing director of global environmental affairs and sustainability.


Both German carrier Lufthansa and Scandinavian Airlines, also known as SAS, have programs that let individual travelers purchase sustainable aviation fuel to offset emissions from their flight. In the U.S., a couple of carriers have similar partnerships with companies, including Delta Air Lines, which recently announced Deloitte would purchase sustainable aviation fuel to cover a portion of its employee travel.

United’s partner companies see the program as a way to help hit their own emissions reduction targets, including Siemens, which has more than 2,400 employees in the Chicago area. The company committed to being carbon neutral by 2030, and joining United’s sustainable fuel program is part of its strategy for reducing emissions from its supply chain and business travel, Siemens said.

Passengers won’t get to choose whether their cash will fund fuel purchases or investments, but United plans to provide information at the end of each year on how funds were used.

United will still let passengers purchase carbon offsets, though Kirby, who has expressed skepticism about offsets’ impact, said that option likely “won’t last forever.”


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