Air New Zealand’s new sustainability boss Kiri Hannifin says the hammering the country is taking from extreme tropical weather is yet another stark warning to polluting industries.
Globally, aviation contributes about 2 to 3 per cent of carbon emissions – although in New Zealand, where there’s relatively little heavy industry, domestic aviation’s contribution as a percentage is double that figure.
Hannifin, who was the face of Countdown during the pandemic, has now been chief sustainability officer at Air NZ for three months and says there is much at stake.
“I think everybody does this in their jobs, so I’m not saying it’s anything special, but there’s an immense responsibility to do the right thing,” she says.
Not only is there an imperative to help the airline, but also to make sure New Zealand is a place where flying can continue, without doing so much damage to the environment.
“So that our children and their children will have this - be able to not just fly, but to live in a climate or in a country that is thriving. If we don’t decarbonise then what about trade and tourism - there’s so much at stake.”
Moonson conditions in the upper North Island have been linked to climate change and forecasts suggest this country will be hit by more powerful storms originating in the tropics. “I think the dots are well and truly strongly being linked in what we’re seeing now in terms of the weather patterns, not just here, but all over the world,” says Hannifin.
Instead of being one-in-100-year events, weather crises will become much more frequent.
“There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind and at Air New Zealand that there’s not a day to waste.”
Air New Zealand was materially impacted by flooding on January 27 at its Auckland Airport hub.
“We saw it first-hand how difficult it is to manage weather events, you know, hundreds of flights cancelled and thousands of our customers left without a trip home.”
Then, not much more than a fortnight later, Cyclone Gabrielle this week forced the airline to suspend all domestic flights and many international services through the city, leading to more disruption for thousands more travellers.
With this country at the end of more long-haul and ultra-long-haul routes than most, tackling emissions is critical for Air NZ. Long-haul travel is less efficient than shorter hops (aircraft use fuel to lift the large volumes of fuel needed for long trips) and like others, Air NZ is putting more premium seats in new widebody planes and those seats have a much bigger carbon footprint than those in more densely-packed economy cabins.
Supermarkets don’t fly
Hannifin brings an aviation outsider’s view to the airline.
She has a law degree and previous jobs range from being a political adviser to a London council to chairing the National NGO Alliance Against Family Violence. At Countdown, where she worked for seven years, she had a wide role as director of corporate affairs, quality, health and safety and sustainability.
At Air New Zealand, Hannifin’s job is far more specialised, sitting on the 10-member executive as chief sustainability officer, a newly created executive position that the airline says emphasises the importance it is placing on this area.
She says moving from tackling sustainability issues in supermarkets to an airline has meant a steep learning curve.
“You get to the stage where everything you know in life seems to be completely irrelevant for the problem that you have in front of you.”
She says with supermarkets there were some “quick and very substantial” gains from moves such as swapping out refrigerants, electrifying stores or putting in solar panels.
Aviation is much more difficult, given the complexity of aircraft and airline systems, all of which need regulatory approval.
Air New Zealand is committed to an especially tight timeframe, with its goal of launching zero-emissions regional aircraft from 2030 and net zero carbon emissions. It also wants to run demonstrator trials using small aircraft from 2026.
“The work that we need to do in the timeframe is extraordinary and then overlay that with the fact that some of the technology that we need doesn’t exist yet,” says Hannifin.
“The change that we’ll need to see is change that probably never has happened so fast in history in terms of technological change, so it feels enormously challenging but enormously important.”
The airline last week took another step towards decarbonising its regional flying, signing new global partners to develop a replacement for its 50-seater Q300 turboprop aircraft.
The airline announced that Universal Hydrogen, Embraer and Heart Aerospace will join Airbus and ATR as the long-term partners to develop new aircraft.
Similar to hybrid cars, the technology combines two sources of fuel in the form of green hydrogen and an electric battery or hydrogen fuel cell. Big, pure-battery planes are too heavy at this stage for large numbers of passengers.
Universal Hydrogen is based in California, Embraer in Brazil and Heart Aerospace in Sweden, while Airbus and ATR are both based in France.
Coinciding with the announcement, Universal Hydrogen was granted a special airworthiness certificate by the US Federal Aviation Administration to proceed with the first flight of its hydrogen-powered aircraft, which is in the taxi-testing stage.
Hannifin says the airline needs to work with a range of partners.
“We thought that the best thing to do will be to lead the way and to go out to the market and say this is the kind of technology we’re looking for. We absolutely can’t do it without the best players in the world.” She says there is a balance of competition and camaraderie and sharing of information among companies developing sustainable technology.
“Everybody around that table accepts that we’re in it together.”
She has experienced this when talking to sustainability peers at other airlines which are fierce rivals commercially. “I‘ve had this like joyful sort of privilege of everyone so far at different airlines picking up the phone to talk to me. That feels really positive and we’re all competitors as well.”
The risk of getting left behind
While the development of battery and hydrogen technology – or a mix of both – is critical, sustainable aviation fuel (Saf) is already being used and is the best long-term option for long-haul flights. The fuel can be used in existing aircraft and infrastructure, emits around 80 per cent less carbon during its full lifecycle than conventional jet fuel, and can be made from used cooking oil, household waste or woody biomass. But it is four to five times as expensive as jet fuel and there’s now intense competition around the world for feedstock. In spite of high-profile trial flights and now regular operations, the International Council on Clean Transportation estimates this accounted for just 0.1 per cent of all flights in 2019.
Hannifin says there is scope for the Government to do more to encourage a Saf industry in this country, especially given New Zealand’s mountains of woody biomass, including forestry waste.
The Ministry of Transport has set up a working group, a public-private partnership to work on the decarbonisation of aviation. Sustainable Aviation Aotearoa – of which Hannifin is a member – was established last year to provide strategic direction and co-ordination on ambitions for low- and zero-emission aviation.
The Government’s recent backtrack on plans for a biofuel mandate for land transport won’t affect its work towards setting minimum requirements for aviation. In New Zealand, the light fleet including cars, SUVs, utes, vans and light trucks was responsible for 67 per cent of transport emissions, the heavy fleet 23 per cent, aviation 6 per cent, shipping 3 per cent and rail 1 per cent.
Energy and Resources Minister Megan Woods’ office says work will continue with industry on sustainable aviation fuel, including a mandate and the feasibility study on the potential for domestic production of such aviation fuel.
A spokeswoman hasn’t replied to questions about a timeframe for the work.
Although the Government has said decarbonising the economy is a priority, New Zealand is lagging behind some big countries in direct support for sustainable aviation.
In Britain, the Government late last year announced a $320 million investment in a home-grown Saf industry and last week released some details of a $230m hydrogen or all-electric flight technology programme. The United States has introduced tax credits for using Saf and a $1.6 billion grant over five years to expand the number of facilities.
Hannifin says that at the very least, Air New Zealand wants to know whether there is a feedstock in this county that could make Saf that is sustainable, commercially viable and able to provide some level of energy independence.
“It’s not about the recipient but producing our own sustainable fuel. That would be a good question for the country to ask and interrogate.”
When aviation was decarbonised, it helped reduce the carbon footprint of tourism and trade.
“There’s lots of sectors relying on us to do our best. The quid pro quo about being the national carrier is that we absolutely have the responsibility to do the right thing for our country.”
One part of the airline’s sustainability push is already in for a shakeup – the carbon offset scheme for passengers.
The percentage of travellers who tick the FlyNeutral box is down from 7 per cent in 2021 to 6.9 per cent last year, according to the airline’s 2022 Sustainability Report.
Hannifin says work is under way to find out why interest is declining.
“I think the broader question is how do we get our customers to have skin in the game? It’s something I want to look at.”