Alaska Airlines is pitching an ‘eco-friendly’ alternative to the mileage run this year. How green is it?

several Alaska Airlines planes parked at airport gates
Alaska Airlines planes taxi to and from various Seattle-Tacoma International Airport gates on Jan. 5, 2022. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Abby Query learned early on how to make the most of the Alaska Airlines rewards program.

“My mom got me into all the Alaska Airlines programs,” said Query, who grew up in Juneau. “I’ve been a mileage plan member since I was three.”  

Query keeps a close eye on how much she’s flown every year, because if she hits 20,000 miles, she qualifies for elite status, which comes with certain benefits: easier booking, better seats, sometimes even upgrades to first class.

They’re small perks, Query said, but they add up if you’re in the air a lot.

“It just makes the whole flying system nicer,” she said. “And when you live in Southeast Alaska like I do, you fly a lot to go anywhere.” 

And often, Alaska is the only airline available.

This year, Query was just shy of reaching elite status, so she booked a trip to Nevada to go rock climbing with friends. 

This status-earning trip is called a “mileage run.” Query is not alone in booking one. She’s heard of people booking a weekend trip to Hawaii or just flying to Seattle and back on the same day to top off their miles at the end of the year. 

But she knows all that flying – and burning all that jet fuel – has a downside. Aviation accounts for 2.4% of global annual carbon dioxide emissions – and that number is growing, according to a 2021 study.

“It does have a really big impact on the environment,” Query said. “It’s sometimes hard to fathom just because it’s such a normal part of our life. But I mean, my carbon footprint is larger because I went on this trip.”

Alaska Airlines knows mileage runs are a habit for Alaskans who care about their reward status. 

This year, in an effort to cut down on these superfluous flights — and their carbon impacts — the airline rolled out a new offer: instead of booking a flight, members can earn elite-qualifying miles through the end of the month by buying something called sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF.

“Our guests recognize the climate impacts of flying and many have asked for that seamless way to take action,” said Alaska Airlines communications manager Cailee Lyngaas. The airline has set a goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. That’s a faster timeline than many other major U.S. airlines.

Lyngaas said SAF will play a major role in achieving that target.

So, what is SAF? Basically, it’s jet fuel that isn’t a fossil fuel. It’s not a product of oil drilling.

Instead, it’s usually a biofuel, made from plant and animal material — anything from waste cooking oil to manure to crops specifically grown for fuel.

The idea is that over its lifetime, from production to the moment it’s burned in a jet engine, it should add significantly less carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than traditional jet fuel. (Though critics point out biofuels can actually increase carbon emissions depending on how they’re produced.)

Cutting emissions from planes is a huge challenge, said Andrew Chen, an aviation expert with the clean energy think tank Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado. 

Chen said the technology for alternatives like electric or hydrogen-fueled planes isn’t far enough along yet. SAF, despite its limitations, is the best solution currently available — besides simply flying less.

“It is the most viable solution today for decarbonizing aviation,” Chen said. “The challenge is that we don’t make or use or buy enough of it.”

SAF is still in its infancy. There’s no big industry producing it. It’s more expensive than traditional jet fuel. And Chen said it won’t be able to compete as long as fossil fuels remain cheap.

But he said it’s still an important tool, and he sees Alaska’s offer as a creative way to spread awareness.

“I think on that aspect alone, it’s fantastic to engage the public and passenger consumers,” Chen said.

Lyngaas acknowledged that this month’s offer alone won’t create enough demand for SAF to lower costs. She said it’s about building public support for fossil fuel alternatives.

“We can help educate our guests on the benefits, and hopefully that translates to bringing the cost down, building scale and advocating for that public policy support,” Lyngaas said.

But is Alaska Airlines’ offer actually better for the climate than your mileage run?

That depends in part on how the SAF is produced and used. 

Lyngaas didn’t have specifics on the type of SAF Alaska Airlines currently uses. She said it’s regularly used to fuel planes at San Francisco International Airport, but it’s still not widespread across the fleet.

SAF makes up less than 1% of the airline’s fuel today, according to Lyngaas. Alaska has a goal to reach 10% SAF by 2030.

SAF use is currently “not as much as we’d want it to be, if I’m being completely honest. The scale is not there, and quite frankly, the pricing,” Lyngaas said. “But we will continue to push forward and advance that market.”

On its website, Alaska Airlines offers a calculator for customers to determine the carbon footprint of their flight. For example, it says a round trip flight from Anchorage to Seattle produces 760 pounds of CO2 – roughly equivalent to burning 38 gallons of gasoline, or driving an average car from Seward to Deadhorse. 

The airline says spending $200 on SAF would more than offset that carbon impact, while earning 1,000 elite-qualifying miles. 

Lyngaas said all the money paid by customers for elite-qualifying miles will go to increase purchases of SAF. However, on its website, the airline says the funds support “climate solutions (SAF, and verified offsets and removals) that reduce or remove greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in an amount based on your estimated carbon footprint.”

Carbon offsets can vary widely in how much they benefit the climate. 

As for Abby Query in Juneau, she’s a little skeptical about how much climate value the program might actually have. But it does make her think harder about the climate impact of flying.

“We see the Instagram pictures and the tans (from travel), but maybe not necessarily the extraction process and the impact it’s having on the planet,” she said.

Query, who hadn’t heard about SAF before, said travel is a big part of her life – and if there’s a way to lower the environmental costs, she’s interested. 

Kavitha George is Alaska Public Media’s climate change reporter. Reach her at Read more about Kavitha here.

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