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Can sustainable aviation fuel overtake jet power? Delta CSO Amelia DeLuca is up for the challenge

Gov Kandola spoke to Amelia for the Venari Podcast’s Sustainability Podcast


We at Venari Partners know only too well the allure that aviation continues to hold. The accessibility of flying hasn’t diminished the air of glamour that still surrounds the industry; it captures people’s imaginations in a way that other modes of transport simply can’t compete with. Still, these are tricky times for recruitment in aviation – so given the role the sector plays in global carbon emissions, is this a golden opportunity to focus the industry’s attention on finding the right talent to drive sustainability?


 ‘I certainly have my dream job,’ says Amelia DeLuca. ‘Chief Sustainability Officer of an airline like Delta is absolutely a dream. It doesn’t mean it’s easy.’ Gov Kandola, our Senior Transport & Logistics Consultant, was thrilled to welcome Amelia to this episode of the Venari Podcast’s Sustainability Series, where they discussed her career journey to date, how to overcome the obstacles inherent in decarbonising aviation, and building teams that can make sustainability goals a reality.


Enjoying the challenge

Amelia has spent her entire career in aviation and hopes ‘it’s the only thing I ever do.’ She is drawn to problem-solving, having previously led Delta’s B2B call centre during the pandemic, so it makes sense that the role of Chief Sustainability Officer is such a good fit for her. Amelia describes feeling ‘really honoured and very privileged’ to be so involved in tackling the challenge not just in the short term, but also to know that decisions reached today could have implications that stretch decades into the future. The job has allowed her to expand her knowledge and relationships – but just what does that entail at a major airline like Delta?


For Delta, decarbonisation primarily concerns three factors: as Amelia puts it, ‘what we fly, how we fly, and the fuel we use’, topics that she notes are broadly similar for all major airlines. Renewing the fleet to encompass next-generation aircraft, as well as optimising jet fuel consumption through subtle changes in weight, flight, and ground operations, are important steps – though the ‘elephant in the room’, as Amelia puts it, is another matter altogether: sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).


Fuelling the future

SAF is a potentially game-changing development in the industry. Indeed, Amelia describes it as ‘one of the most exciting things that most of us have come across in a long time’. Not only does SAF accelerate decarbonisation, but a widespread rollout would help to stabilise one of aviation’s most volatile and significant cost drivers: the price of conventional jet fuel.


Amelia admits wryly that she never expected, as an aviation professional, to spend so much time thinking about agriculture – but while biofuels like used cooking oil, tallow, and corn ethanol are all part of the conversation around SAF, the long-term goal is for synthetic fuels to use captured carbon alongside renewable energy and water.

Virgin recently conducted the first transatlantic flight using entirely renewable fuel – but given that current production levels of SAF couldn’t fuel the world’s commercial airlines for a single day, unfortunately there is still a way to go until such occurrences become commonplace. Not only is the lack of large-scale manufacturing a hindrance to airlines’ sustainability efforts, but Amelia admits that the matter is somewhat out of their control as they do not manufacture SAF themselves. (That SAF is still significantly more expensive than jet fuel also does not help.)


It is all the more important, therefore, for Delta and the wider aviation industry alike ‘not only to reduce our reliance on jet fuel, but also to grow the demand within SAF and to make sure that the market is set up again to advance not only in the near term, but more importantly towards those net-zero goals of 2050,’ Amelia says.


Enjoying the challenge

While we wait for a breakthrough in production capacity for SAF, what else are Delta and the industry alike doing to be more sustainable? ‘Delta is a trusted brand, and so for me, it’s all about listening to our customers and then either creating the solutions that are within our control or advocating for the solutions that we need,’ Amelia notes. This has taken in a revamp of the onboard experience, from eliminating single-use plastics to letting customers pre-select meals to increase their options while minimising food waste.


Such actions are important for building trust – and Amelia notes that this is something that can be applied on a wider scale, too. Measures like the Inflation Reduction Act have helped boost SAF development federally, and Amelia notes that ‘the industry is really banding together at the state level’ to work on finding sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels. ‘I think that also builds trust with our local communities as we go.’


Sky-high aims for talent and culture

It all sounds very compelling – but how have Delta managed to find the right talent to put their sustainability goals into practice? Amelia highlights her team’s diversity of experience, and the burgeoning interest in sustainability as a career path – not just for recent graduates, ‘but also people who are going back to school to study this, which is great. It provides us with the opportunity to really get the best of the best in the door.’ She admits that the team has had some growing pains, shooting from just three when she started to a group of 30 now.


While Amelia is delighted with the current mix of aviation professionals and people who have come in from different sectors, the changing skillsets needed to keep up with the rapidly shifting sustainability space – not to mention Delta’s own priorities as a company – is something the airline will need to be mindful of. ‘I think the biggest thing is just building a culture of agility,’ Amelia says: ‘A culture where we can pivot, learn from each other, and start to create these bench strengths of skillsets, also.’


The importance of collaboration

Perhaps the biggest indicator of sustainability’s newfound place at the heart of airline strategies is how carriers now collaborate and communicate. Where Amelia had never contacted professionals at other airlines outside of SkyTeam before her current role, now she talks ‘at least once a week, if not daily,’ with sustainability representatives from American and United Airlines. ‘I love that, because we are all advocating for the same things.’ It’s certainly exciting – and there are plenty more exciting developments to come.


Planning for the future

Last August, Delta co-launched the Minnesota SAF Hub, which Amelia believes ‘is the solution that the industry has been lacking when it comes to the scaling of SAF.’ The project entails working not just with SAF producers but the entire value chain – that is, entire federal states, corporate partners, and agricultural bodies alike.


‘It’s this concept of start local, scale global,’ Amelia explains, ‘and we’re excited to show the world what we have in mind for Minnesota.’ Other efforts, like Delta’s partnerships with Joby Aviation and Airbus, on eVTOLs and hydrogen-powered aircraft respectively, underline the fascinating projects currently taking place on the fringes of aviation. Hopefully, it is just a matter of time before such initiatives go mainstream.


Our thanks again to Amelia for her time and sharing such fascinating insights!


We are passionate about helping businesses in the transport sector to find the right sustainable talent. Please reach out if you would like to find out more!


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