US elite frequent flyers call on United Airlines to lead rather than obstruct on climate change action
Tue 11 June 2013 – A group of US and European NGOs has enlisted the support of over 500 United Airlines’ elite frequent flyers to pressure the airline into doing more to curb aviation emissions. The frequent flyers, who include 20 members of the invitation-only Global Services programme, have signed an open letter to United’s CEO Jeff Smisek urging the carrier to “stop obstructing efforts to reduce aviation climate pollution and start actively supporting strong climate action.” The letter is part of a new campaign by the NGOs, called Flying Clean. It claims around 85,000 regular flyers, including 2,700 elite frequent flyers, have signed a similar petition on its website. The group says United has led the US aviation industry in opposing multiple climate change efforts at home and abroad, including California’s clean fuel standard and Europe’s emissions trading scheme (EU ETS).
The Flying Clean Alliance has 11 partners, including the Sierra Club, 350.org, Avaaz and Stop Fooling California, plus European NGOs Transport & Environment and the Aviation Environment Federation. The letter and the petition were delivered to United yesterday to coincide with the company’s annual shareholder meeting this week and also the current discussions taking place at ICAO.
According to the campaign’s director, Deborah Lapidus, United has been singled out because as one of the largest airlines in the United States, it should be leader on climate action and as an industry trendsetter, other airlines tend to follow its example. She said frequent flyers with other carriers had also expressed a desire for their airline to support similar action on climate.
The campaign group also points out United has been an outspoken critic of the EU ETS, against which it fought an unsuccessful lawsuit, and says the airline has lobbied the US government to “weaken and delay meaningful action in ICAO”.
One of the signatories to the letter is Frank Loy, a former US State Department official and climate change negotiator, and who also once served as International Affairs SVP with Pan American Airways. “Aviation emissions are one of the fastest growing parts of the climate change problem,” said Loy, a United ‘gold one-million-miler’. “The time for action is now, at the international and national levels. The United States government and US airlines should lead.”
Loy told a press conference yesterday that last week’s IATA resolution (see article) calling for the introduction of a global market-based measure from 2020 by States to limit the growth of aviation emissions fell short. “Waiting until 2020 to launch this effort is a mistake and it doesn’t reflect how urgent it is to begin now,” he said.
“It seems clear to me that if ICAO fails to act, or delays action until 2020, the world will return to domestic or regional proposals to cut airline emissions in the interim, such as the EU is planning. Then, a responsible United will have no choice but to accept these and live with them, and that is clearly a second-best solution.”
Flying Clean points out that United lost over $90 million in revenue from delayed and cancelled flights caused by Hurricane Sandy.
“It is in the best long-term economic interests of the airlines to curb climate change given all the weather and storm related costs they will incur with a warming planet,” added Loy. “These costs are going to be much higher than anyone contemplated. United must certainly understand this, and it owes it to its shareholders and its customers to act to mitigate the threat climate change poses to the aviation industry. And a good time to start is now.”
Another signatory is Michael Walsh, a clean vehicle technology expert and a six-million-miler United Global Services member. “United is hyping up its recent efforts to reduce emissions on one hand, while on the other fighting commonsense policies that would curb emissions on a much greater industry-wide scale. That doesn’t fly,” he said. “Great companies lead on great challenges. As frequent flyers, we’re making a point with our points: United can be that company.”
Despite the recent announcement (see article) that United had agreed to purchase 15 million gallons of advanced biofuels for its Los Angeles hub, the Flying Clean campaign group claims current and former United executives are behind a campaign to dismantle California’s low-carbon fuel standard. The group says the airline’s involvement in an initiative called Fueling California, funded by Chevron, calls into question its purported commitment to cleaner aviation fuels.
“Even though the low-carbon fuel standard did not extend to airline fuel, United has played a leadership role,” said another United Global Services member, Tom Steyer, an energy activist and former investment manager. “There is no reason or justification why United, a global company that purports to be trying to stay competitive should be working so hard to keep the oil companies happy in California. Frankly, it’s uncompetitive and goes against the long-term interests of the airline.”
Added Steyer: “As a customer, I like the airline and I obviously use its services an absurd amount – I want it to succeed and I want to remain a loyal customer. But I also think that no company can succeed, or deserve to succeed, if it denies the critical importance of climate change. United’s advertising slogan is ‘fly the friendly skies’ but it’s time for them to recognise those skies are going to get a whole lot unfriendlier if we don’t take action on climate.”