Credit: Courtesy of Don Q Inn

The United States Environmental Protection Agency indicated last week that it plans to use its regulatory authority to oversee aircraft emissions in the United States, touching off a political firestorm in the process.

Some have expressed concern that the EPA will not be strict enough with the airlines while others have suggested that the industry is acting sufficiently on its own. Still others are concerned that the Agency is over-regulating. Pending the results of a 60-day comment period the EPA intends to find that aircraft engines produce greenhouse gases causing air pollution which endangers public welfare under section 231(a) of the Clean Air Act.

That finding will trigger enforcement of limits on the industry, however, the EPA has not yet established what the target emissions numbers will be. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a special UN Agency representing aviation authorities around the globe, has been working towards a new emissions standard for several years and is expected to announce that new policy at its Assembly in February 2016. The EPA's announcement this month indicates that the Agency plans to adopt the regulations endorsed by ICAO, even before those regulations are finalized.

US carriers are already cutting emissions on a per flight basis, as is the industry on a global scale. Much of this comes from the replacement of older aircraft with new models like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350XWB; nearly 1900 of these new wide-body aircraft have been ordered and nearly 300 are already flying. For smaller jets both Boeing and Airbus will launch updated versions of their flagship lines, the 737MAX and A320neo, with thousands of new planes on order and delivery starting in the next 2-3 years. Regional jet manufacturers Embraer and Bombardier similarly have new models set to deliver in the next few years with comparable efficiency boosts in the 70-90 seat jet market. Newer engines and reduced weight, through increased use of carbon fiber and other means, will give these planes significant improvements in fuel burn over prior generations' aircraft.

The industry is also pressing Congress and the FAA to fund and implement NextGen Air Traffic Control systems. These would offer more efficient aircraft routing, especially during take-off and landing where aircraft operation is already less efficient. NextGen systems would reduce fuel burn without requiring new aircraft purchases.

At the same time, however, the industry continues to grow. In 2014 the global passenger market grew by 6.7 percent in terms of available seat miles while carbon emissions increased 4.6 percent, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). IATA is pushing strongly for a global solution, not patchwork efforts by individual governments. Speaking at the IATA annual meeting in Miami last week the group's head, Tony Tyler, was pointed on this issue, "We’ve always understood that our common interests and those of the environment are best served by a united industry position and a global approach."

He also reiterated IATA's stated goals of increased fuel efficiency on a year over year basis until 2020 and carbon-neutral growth from there. Airlines for America, the lobbying group for U.S. carriers, issued a similar statement in response to the EPA announcement, boasting of voluntary efforts through purchase of new aircraft, more efficient ground operations and trials of biofuels.

The EPA decision came as a result of nearly a decade of legal wrangling headed by Earthjustice, first as a petition in 2007 and then as a lawsuit. Attorney Sarah Burt responded to the news in a statement, deriding the "tentative approach that EPA is considering" and suggesting that the US must act faster and more aggressively than the expected ICAO standard. Burt also suggested that "a more robust U.S. action could help ratchet up the international standard," though it is not clear this would be successful. The U.S .objected strongly to a unilateral carbon offset scheme proposed by the European Union, ultimately scuttling that effort.

The biggest risk to U.S. airlines with this EPA move is that strict enforcement will happen only in the U.S. market. This would potentially allow foreign competition to avoid large capital expenditures for new, more efficient aircraft, while burdening US carriers with those costs. Given some of the recent issues around competition and challenges with consistent application of global rules prompt enforcement of ICAO standards – or stricter policies – could raise another significant area of concern from the US airline industry.