How a Student Project Helped to Change JetBlue’s Course

by |October 19, 2016
sophia

Sophia Mendelsohn, head of sustainability at JetBlue Airlines.

What began as research at Columbia University became the catalyst for improving the sustainability of an airline, as JetBlue recently forged a 10-year deal to buy 330 million gallons of jet fuel made partially from plants.

The project sprang out of a contradiction. The airline industry, long under pressure to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, has been hesitant to use so-called alternative jet fuel. Yet this fuel is available, comparable in price and performance, and just as safe as conventional jet-A fuel. Alternative jet fuel can be produced from a variety of organic material, including municipal waste, wood scraps and plants. Only one U.S. airlineUnited—has been using alternative jet fuel in some commercial flights. Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic are said to be exploring the market.

For Sophia Mendelsohn, head of sustainability at JetBlue by day and a graduate student in Columbia’s Sustainability Management program by night, this was a contradiction that she was determined to undo. An analysis of financial and environmental impacts, regulatory risk and customer expectations pointed to jet fuel as a key element of the company’s sustainability strategy.

Last summer, her work on alternative jet fuel extended to Columbia. Mendelsohn capitalized on the flexible curriculum of the Sustainability Management program and on her study time to conceive of a research project about the alternative jet fuel market. She would identify the structural problems that were hampering the market by interviewing colleagues in the airline industry, alternative jet fuel producers and financiers. 

“In a business environment,” she said, “you rarely have the time to go through the theoretical arguments and counter-arguments around such an important issue before proving the business case.” 

What she found was a disconnect between the way that airlines plan for and execute purchases of jet fuel and the financing needs of the nascent industry of alternative jet fuel production. Airlines buy large quantities of fuel on the commodities market, making deals that guarantee supply over the long term. Alternative jet fuel producers, however, need large initial investments to build refineries. Without strong demand from airlines, alternative jet fuel producers have been unable to attract adequate investment.

At the same time, Mendelsohn was championing alternative jet fuel within JetBlue. The concerns of the airline revolved around the fundamental issues of safety and reliability. “The biggest concern others had was that the fuel would contaminate the pipeline,” she said.

To address these concerns, she recruited Tim Massimiano, a member of JetBlue’s fuel team. Massimiano shared Mendelsohn’s desire to reduce the airline’s greenhouse gas emissions, but more important, he carried the credibility on fuel reliability and performance. “It goes to show that having a partner within the business makes all the difference,” Mendelsohn said.

In September, JetBlue announced an agreement with SG Preston, a bioengineering company, to buy 330 million gallons of alternative jet fuel over 10 years. The fuel is a blend of 70 percent conventional jet fuel and 30 percent fuel made from non-edible, oily plants grown in North America. Mendelsohn said that the plant could be used as a cover crop in winter, which means that its production did not occupy land that could be used for food production. Growers of plants used for fuel have been criticized for taking up arable land, reducing the food supply and driving up food prices. 

JetBlue’s alternative jet fuel purchase will account for about 4 percent of its total fuel consumption and 20 percent of its consumption at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, the airline’s central hub.

Looking back on the research into the market of alternative jet fuel, which she conducted at Columbia, Mendelsohn said that it was “of vital importance” in reaching the deal. The project was also her culminating project in the Sustainability Management program. Mendelsohn is scheduled to graduate in January.

 The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. The program requires the successful completion of 36 credit points. Those credit points are divided among five comprehensive content areas: integrative sustainability management, economics and quantitative analysis, the physical dimensions of sustainability, the public policy environment of sustainability management, and general and financial management. Visit our website to learn more.

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