Cathay A350

Cathay Pacific began taking delivery of 26 new Airbus A350s in June last year. The airplane manufacturer claims the new-generation twin-engine wide-body offers a 25-percent improvement in fuel efficiency compared to similar aircraft. Image via Cathay Pacific

APEX Insight: With Earth Day on the horizon, APEX Media spoke to Cathay Pacific about its sustainable business practices, from the use of recycled materials for amenity kits and carpets to its investment in a US-based sustainable biofuel developer.

Global passenger numbers are expected to double over the next 20 years to 7.2 billion and aviation’s environmental impact is under more scrutiny than ever. The industry continues to rely on fossil fuels, leaving a large carbon footprint. How can the continual growth in air travel be reconciled with the need to curb CO2 emissions? For Cathay Pacific, the incentives for adopting sustainable solutions are not just environmental, they’re also economic.

Evelyn Chan, Cathay Pacific’s head of Environmental Affairs, is responsible for enforcing a strategy that ensures the airline is well-placed to deal with a carbon-constrained future. “[The strategy] covers everything from ensuring that the materials we source for our products are sustainable, to the way that we operate our aircraft and the technology that we use in our aircraft are all sustainable and can ensure the long-term survival of the company,” she says.

Sustainable business practices make sense in the short term, too. “We’re finding increasingly that many of our customers are a lot more interested in understanding the environmental impacts that aviation has,” notes Phillipe Lacamp, Cathay’s senior vice-president for the Americas. “We are getting to the point where they are beginning to drive some of our decision-making on the obvious things: supply chain integrity, investments in biofuels, waste recycling … That in itself is a differentiator.”

“Many of our customers are a lot more interested in understanding the environmental impacts that aviation has.” – Phillipe Lacamp, Cathay Pacific

The most visible sign of the Hong Kong-based carrier’s sustainability approach is its investment in new aircraft. Cathay began taking delivery of 26 new Airbus A350s in June last year. The airplane manufacturer claims the new-generation twin-engine wide-body offers a 25-percent improvement in fuel efficiency compared to similar aircraft. The airline’s approach to sustainability involves smaller details, too. Cathay has equipped cabins with lightweight galley carts and lighter trays. Chan claims the combined initiatives have saved up to 150 kilograms of CO2 per flight.

The airline has also found creative ways to minimizing waste. Its latest premium economy amenity kits serve as a good example of this. “We wanted to explore what alternative materials could be used instead of traditional ones like cotton or wool. Our suppliers came up with a really good solution of using used plastic bottles to make our amenity kit bags,” explains Chan. “By cooperating with a local Hong Kong design firm, we created something that looks stylish and matches our branding.” This way of thinking manifests itself elsewhere in the cabin. The carpets on Cathay’s new A350s are made from repurposed nylon material from recycled carpets and fishing nets that have been retrieved from the ocean.

“We wanted to explore what alternative materials could be used.” – Evelyn Chan, Cathay Pacific

Cathay’s stakeholders supported it in becoming an early adopter of biofuels. The airline hired a full-time biofuel manager in 2010, then became the first airline investor in Fulcrum BioEnergy, a US-based sustainable biofuel developer, in an effort to achieve carbon-neutral growth by 2020. “We were the first airline to do this, rather than just making an offtake agreement,” explains Chan. “When I first joined in this position six or seven years ago, nobody would have ever imaged that biofuel would ever become viable, or even tested.”

It helps that Cathay Pacific’s main shareholder, Swire Group, a 200-year-old family-operated holding company operates on long-term principles and is a strong advocate for sustainability. “We have a key shareholder and stakeholder who are looking in terms of decades and not in terms of quarters, which is slightly unusual for us in the airline industry,” says Lacamp.

Cathay Pacific unusual in that it is based in a jurisdiction that offers no bankruptcy protection, compared to airlines based in most western countries. “In Hong Kong we don’t have that; it’s a free market. If we go bust, we will actually go bust, so it’s imperative that we have people who are in it for the long term and that are encouraging of the technologies that we think are going to be key to the industry,” says Lacamp.

But this poses a wider question: What can be done to encourage airlines outside of Cathay’s unique set of circumstances to adopt sustainable eco-friendly practices? Lacamp thinks the answer could lie with airports. He suggests they could offer incentives such as a percentage reduction off landing fees or priority slots to airlines that use biofuel. “It’s something we’ve been looking at across the Americas … A very interesting area to explore is how they might want to position themselves as being green airports.”

Ari is the news editor at APEX Media.