Two Big Goals, Hundreds of Small Actions

FedEx Is Breaking New Ground in Its Quest to Conserve Jet Fuel and Find Alternative Fuel Sources

People who lead the research to find renewable alternatives to petroleum-based fuels are a very curious lot — because, theoretically, the energy stored in any one of hundreds of biological materials could someday power a fleet of jet airplanes. The choices range from the lowly mustard seed to green blobs of algae being farmed in laboratories to plants you might never have heard of — such as camelina, a Mediterranean herb whose seeds have historically been prized for their oil content.

One thing’s for sure, though: Those researchers are going to be working very hard over the next several years. Why? Because there’s a growing market for alternatives to petroleum-based jet fuel. That market includes FedEx. Departments from all across the company are working together to make sure FedEx finds enough alternative fuel — and saves enough fuel in the meantime — to meet two big goals: to get 30% of its jet fuel from alternative sources by 2030 and to reduce its aircraft-emissions intensity 30% by 2020.


1ATM, or available ton mile, is defined as one ton of capacity (cargo) transported one mile.

Our goal is to reduce aircraft-emissions intensity 30% by 2020. Learn more about our Environment & Efficiency efforts.

Step One: Save Fuel

Former U.S. Army Maj. Bobbi Wells runs the Fuel Sense program — an EarthSmart initiative that focuses on finding every possible way to save fuel and reduce emissions in aircraft operations. Wells serves FedEx Express as managing director of planning and analysis for Air Operations, and it’s a good bet that she knows more ways to save a gallon of jet fuel than anyone else in the company.

Right now, Fuel Sense is realizing savings of 49 million gallons of jet fuel a year, avoiding more than 466,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions each year. Wells and her team are usually overseeing about 30 separate fuel-savings efforts to reach that total. They scour every phase of aircraft operations, from pre-flight planning to in-flight routing to post-flight operation. And their calculations dig into every variable of air travel’s essential physics problem: How much energy is required to lift the weight of an airplane and its cargo off the ground and keep it aloft until it reaches its destination?

The Fuel Sense team has found dozens of ways to trim fuel usage and carbon emissions while continuing to ensure safe operations of FedEx aircraft. The examples range from the simple and logical, such as using the power of only one engine instead of two to help an aircraft taxi from the ramp to the runway, to the highly complex, such as creating new computer technology to optimize the speed of an aircraft during travel.

Over the past year we have added eight more cities around the world that are serviced by our 777s. Learn more about our Environment & Efficiency efforts.

Every Fuel Sense effort adds to the emissions reductions and fuel savings that come from replacing outdated aircraft with more efficient models, such as Boeing 777s. FedEx currently has 19 777s traveling to 25 cities around the world and is on track to have 43 of the planes in service by 2023. The net effect of these aircraft replacements was an estimated fuel savings of more than 37 million gallons in FY12 and a cut in CO2 emissions of 353,792 metric tons. In addition, the company is planning to introduce the new Boeing 767 aircraft to its fleet in 2013, which will further contribute to progress toward the goals.

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“By introducing Fuel Sense over time and allowing everyone to adapt to it, we’ve made fuel savings a part of the culture. Today, we get a lot of input and comments and suggestions from our pilots, because they want to be part of the solution.”

When Fuel Sense began in 2007, Wells says, there was some initial resistance, simply because the program occasionally challenged time-honored practices. For instance, it had always been customary for aircraft to carry a certain allotment of fuel to use for de-icing. “Whether icy conditions were predicted or not, we carried the fuel,” Wells says. “With a little more planning effort with aircraft dispatchers, we were able to figure out a way to only carry fuel for de-icing when ice was forecasted.” That measure alone saves FedEx 35,000 gallons of fuel and 350 metric tons of CO2 every month. “You burn fuel to carry fuel, so we save double there,” Wells says. “This is just one example. There are many efforts similar to this in Fuel Sense.

“When gas was cheap, it was cheap to put on a lot of fuel to address any service issues,” Wells continues. “But by introducing Fuel Sense over time and allowing everyone to adapt to it, we’ve made fuel savings a part of the culture. Today, we get a lot of input and comments and suggestions from our pilots, because they want to be part of the solution.”

Mitch Jackson, FedEx vice president, Environmental Affairs and Sustainability, credits the Fuel Sense program with helping the company move faster than expected toward its emissions goals. "Fuel Sense is working so well because we pursue the most promising avenues of advanced technologies while working to make every aspect of our aircraft operations more efficient," he says.

Step Two: Find Alternatives

While Wells and her team scour FedEx air operations for new ways to save fuel, other FedEx team members are searching the world for nonpetroleum alternatives to jet fuel, a job that has them surveying everything from the leftover wood chips at lumber mills to laboratories where scientists are synthesizing new strains of oil-producing algae.

Joel Murdock, managing director for Strategic Projects at FedEx Express, says three big obstacles stand between FedEx and its “30 by ’30” goal. First, there’s scalability. Technologies already exist to extract energy from everything from trees to algae, but work remains to make it possible to produce enough fuel to power the jets of FedEx and other airlines. Second, there’s logistics, the ability to move the fuel from where it’s produced to airports the world over. Third, there’s economics. “It’s got to be competitive with the petroleum products that are out there today,” Murdock says.

Three Big Obstacles We’re Working to Solve:

  • scalability

    Technologies exist to extract energy from everything, but work remains to produce enough fuel to power the jets of FedEx.

  • logistics

    The ability to move the fuel from where it’s produced to airports the world over.

  • economics

    The alternative fuel has to be competitive with the petroleum products that are out there today.

FedEx is helping budding alternative-fuels companies overcome those obstacles by sharing its knowledge of the jet-fuel marketplace. If FedEx is to meet its “30 by ’30” goal, alt-fuel entrepreneurs must develop products that are, in Murdock’s words, “commercially competitive” with petroleum-based fuels.

The Great Recession’s crackdown on credit, beginning in 2008, created a string of difficult years for these entrepreneurs. Investment from the U.S. departments of Energy and Agriculture has helped bring some stability to the industry, and alt-fuel startups are starting to again attract private equity investors.

“Those investments in the technology have helped move it closer to the point where (alternative-fuel companies) can work to make it affordable,” Murdock says.

“You have to have very high quality fuel with the same energy density that we have in petroleum jet fuel. When you have problems with fuel in a car, you just pull off the road; you can’t do that with an airplane.”

FedEx has made no direct investments in alternative-fuel companies, but it’s playing a role in the industry that is perhaps more critical: It’s making sure that anyone who wants to develop alternatives to petroleum understands what the market will require of them. FedEx has worked cooperatively with airplane manufacturers, airlines and fuel manufacturers to push a common set of standards. As a result of those efforts, ASTM International, formerly known as the American Society of Testing and Materials, is developing standards for fuel alternatives, an effort that will contribute to global standards.

“They’re running tests and determining what performance parameters are required to make sure that the final blended product is equivalent to the jet fuel that we have in the airplanes today,” Murdock says. “You have to have very high quality fuel with the same energy density that we have in petroleum jet fuel. You can't have the issues that we have in our cars when we go to that really cheap gas station. When you have problems with fuel in a car, you just pull off the road; you can’t do that with an airplane.”

FedEx has also created a new project with The Nature Conservancy. The collaboration will see the two organizations work hand-in-hand to create a roadmap for the industry that will identify the most environmentally sustainable sources of biofuels.

“What they're going to help us with is defining what are some of the better feedstocks we should be pursuing, from a sustainability standpoint,” Murdock says. FedEx is in a unique position among corporations to move this effort forward, because the choices it makes among low-carbon biofuels could set precedents for the entire transportation industry.

FedEx is working not only with The Nature Conservancy, but also with government, academia, airplane manufacturers and biotechnology innovators, among others. The outreach to government, for example, includes work with the U.S. departments of Energy and Agriculture. Energy is working to make alternative fuels more economically feasible, and Agriculture wants to make the move toward alternative fuels profitable for American farmers, who could profit by growing various feedstock crops for biofuels production, the benefits of which The Nature Conservancy will study.

The Department of Agriculture is also studying what happens when farmers rotate the growing of food crops with alternative-fuel feedstocks, as well as what happens when they plant the feedstocks in proximity to food crops. “The waste products of some of these feedstocks actually return good nutrients back into the soil,” Murdock says, “so you’d be helping the farmer who works that land.”