Episode 29: Green Aviation with John Mandyck (United Technologies)


With an average of 10,000 airplanes in the global skies at any given time, it’s safe to say aviation is a huge part of our lives. Join us from takeoff to landing as we discuss how the global aviation industry is flying towards sustainability at an astonishing speed. John Mandyck, Chief Sustainability Officer at United Technologies Corporation, visits us to explain how his company is helping make planes greener than ever. This episode is sponsored by United Technologies.

What we’ll cover

  • General statistics on the aviation industry

  • Why is sustainable aviation important? 

  • Key factors that can make our planes greener

  • Trends in sustainable aviation

  • John Mandyck, Chief Sustainability Officer at United Technologies Corporation (UTC), a massive company focused on aerospace, defense, and building systems. And listeners please note, like our Walmart episode, this is another sponsored content episode. UTC is supporting this episode financially, but we would want to cover sustainable aviation anyway for many reasons, as you’re about to see.

General global stats on flying/aviation industry

  • Think about it: how many industries use planes every single day? There’s travel for work, leisure, your latest Amazon Prime guilty pleasure, transportation of supplies and materials for industry, military, and many others. Here’s a statistic to wrap your mind around:“Every day, 9.8 million passengers take 104,000 flights carrying around $18.6 billion worth of goods.” 

    • Scott, as I prepped for this intro, I went back and counted the number of flights I’ve taken in 2017. 38! It’s exhausting to think about but definitely gave me an idea of the importance of this topic. I’m excited to dive in. Or fly in?

  • And keep in mind, this number of daily flights is only going to increase, as more and more people move to cities and the middle class grows along with it. Only around 20% of the global population has been on a plane.

    • In fact, there were 3.8 billion air passengers in 2016 and this number is expected to nearly double to 7.2 billion air passengers in 2035.

    All of these flights mean aviation is a big industry. Global aviation supports 3.4% of the global economy, enables 63 million jobs and produces $2.4 trillion dollars in GDP. 

Why is green aviation important?

  • Let’s start with understanding airplanes’ impact on climate change generally. Did you know that one round trip flight from New York to San Francisco emits about one metric ton of carbon dioxide per person?  

    • That one roundtrip flight is equivalent to 1/17th of the emissions of the average American and ⅕ of the emissions of the average global citizen.

    • We’ll resort to skype to see each other instead of flying...not worth the ton of CO2….

  • The global aviation industry accounts for 2% of all human-induced carbon dioxide emissions.

    • While 2% may seem small, some studies have found that the global warming effect of carbon dioxide emitted in the upper atmosphere is more potent than if it were emitted on the ground. 

    • On the flip side, jets have become more efficient over time. 70% of jet aircraft today are 80% more fuel efficient per mile than the first jets in the 1960s. Also, the new Boeing 787 uses less than three liters of jet fuel per 100 passenger kilometers, which is the efficiency of most modern compact cars.

      • Plus, for most of these emissions, there is no alternative transportation option since 80% of flights are more than 900 miles long.

Key Factors that Can Make Our Planes Greener

  • Certainly one factor is fuel efficiency, which if increased, would reduce those emissions that we just discussed. Making a plane more aerodynamic so it slices through the air with less resistance, or making a plane thinner through tweaks in design or weight, would also reduce the amount of fuel needed.

      • One example of re-thinking a plane’s design to reduce emissions is UTC’s development of a special carbon fiber material to build brakes. Using the special carbon fiber makes the brakes 700 pounds lighter than the traditional steel breaks. Lighter weight = less fuel = less environmental impact. In addition, the carbon fiber material is more durable meaning less waste and also that repairs and replacements are needed less often.

  • Right, so one also needs to consider the millions of parts that make up the plane and the carbon emissions associated with producing and transporting them. Also the operation of the airports and how planes operate within them. 

    • A 2010 MIT study estimated that just in the amount of time that planes were idling at the top 35 U.S. airports, 200 million gallons of fuel were burned. That’s about half of what is consumed in the United States on an average day. That’s just idling. A 2010 report from NASA found that about 25 percent of airplane emissions come from landing, take-off, and taxiing. So just planes idling and taxiing is a lot of emissions and fuel!

Trends in Sustainable Aviation

Additive Manufacturing:

  • Additive manufacturing is the process by which digital 3D models are turned into solid objects by building them up in layers. An example of an additive manufacturing technique are the 3D printers we all hear so much about. UTC hopes that having additive-repair machines at maintenance, repair, and operations sites around the world will one day allow for the manufacture of new parts and tools on-site, eliminating inventory, aircraft downtime, global shipping time, and cost.

    • One model found that applying additive manufacturing of aircraft parts fleet-wide through 2050 would lead to a reduction 217 million tons of CO2, which is equivalent to the annual emissions of about 23 million homes.


  • Aviation biofuels derived from waste or plants have the potential to reduce the aviation industry’s carbon footprint by 80 percent. More near-term, if just five percent of commercial aviation’s fuel supply consisted of biofuels, its overall carbon footprint would drop by 4 percent.

    • That’s great but unfortunately, aviation biofuels are not cost competitive yet and like the development of many new technologies, several companies touting disruptive breakthroughs have come and gone. But, some deals have been made such as Jetblue’s 10 year agreement to buy 300 million gallons of biofuel, and there are five industry-vetted conversion technologies with more on the way.

    • There are more biofuels coming to the market, but some are concerned that this growth in demand for biofuels will lead to deforestation since some say that as of now the most credible alternative fuel source is hydrotreated vegetable oil, which would likely trigger a growth in palm oil plantations and an associated rise in deforestation.

Carbon Offsets (third trend after talking additive manufacturing and biofuels):

  • Many airlines, including JetBlue, Delta, and United, give passengers the option to purchase carbon offsets. This money is used to fund activities that in theory are supposed to take out of the atmosphere as much carbon as you put into it from the air travel. An example is paying an Amazon rainforest landowner to not cut down his/her trees.

    • Not all offsets are the same. You’ll want to make sure that the offset is for a project that someone already has the means to implement and not a planned one. Also make sure it is verified by a third party, is enforceable so that there is a penalty if the seller does not follow through, and is permanent since if those trees are burned six months later, your money will have been wasted. 

    • Ok, so a valid offset is verifiable, enforceable, and permanent. But there’s actually a couple more important things to consider when buying an offset. Bear with me here. One is additionality. Additionality refers to making sure you’re funding something that would not otherwise be done. If the landowner never intended to cut down his/her trees, then you just gave a gift to that landowner and your offset purchase had no effect on the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. 

    • Another consideration is leakage. Leakage refers to the emissions still occurring just from a different source. If the offset purchase means the rainforest landowner doesn’t sell to a logging company but then that logging company pays to have the trees removed from the landowner next store, your offset purchase had no effect on the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

    • In addition to all these considerations, there is also the concern that offsets allow people to quell their guilt and continue their impactful lifestyles.

    • So it’s tricky! There are organizations that verify high quality offsets if you want to purchase them. The environmental non-profit NRDC recommends buying offsets that Green-E certifies. Google Green-E and you’ll see it.

About today’s guest

  • John Mandyck is the Chief Sustainability Officer at United Technologies. UTC is a global leader in aerospace, food refrigeration, and commercial building. In terms of green aviation, in 2015 alone, 3.5 billion people on 37.6 million flights safely traveled on its new Geared Turbofan engine, which reduces fuel burn by 16 percent, particulate emissions by 50 percent, and noise footprint by 75 percent.

  • At UTC, John works on the sustainability of  UTC’s supply chains, and on overseeing the research UTC is conducting  to be a leader in sustainable aerospace technologies. John also chairs the Corporate Advisory Board of the World Green Building Council and serves as chairman of the Board of Directors for the Urban Green Council in New York City. Quite an accomplished dude! Perhaps he’s yet another sustainability celebrity we are lucky enough to have on the show.