In summary

Government subsidies and clean energy regulations are pushing the aviation industry toward more sustainable jet fuels. Workforce advocates want the funds to be paired with accountability measures that protect communities harmed most by pollution.

Guest Commentary written by

David Huerta

David Huerta

David Huerta is President of SEIU United Service Workers West, which represents more than 45,000 janitors, security officers, airport service workers and other property service workers across California.

California has a proud history of aggressively confronting and tackling the most critical environmental issues of our time while still prioritizing the needs of working people. We’ve taken meaningful steps to make cars burn cleaner gasoline and reduce the smog that harms our communities, yet the aviation industry remains practically unchanged.

California this year has the opportunity to lead the country by cleaning up the dirty aviation industry. 

The commercial aviation industry keeps taking more and more taxpayer dollars without being held accountable for the harm their emissions cause our health. In California, almost every industry pays a tax for the fossil fuels that they burn to mitigate their impact on the environment. But the airline industry, which is one of the top-polluting industries, has continually been exempt from that tax.

The airlines demand money for old polluting fuel and money for so-called “sustainable aviation fuels,” yet they cry foul when those subsidies come with standards or any meaningful oversight. Unions find this approach as unfair as it is unsustainable.

Aviation is already a significant contributor to climate change, and emissions have the potential to grow substantially in the coming decades. Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Air Resources Board have taken real and significant steps to address the emissions caused by the airlines with their final scoping plan recommendations. The state’s climate blueprint doubles (from 10% to 20%) the amount of aviation fuel demand that is met by electricity or hydrogen by 2045.

This is critical because California has to incentivize the industry to get away from unsustainable fuels. Even sustainable aviation fuels have a significant carbon footprint and still emit harmful pollutants into our atmosphere and into communities surrounding airports. These fuels are an an important step towards cleaning up the airline industry, but workers continue to call for increased electrification of the airline industry because the state cannot subsidize airlines and their dirty fuels and expect to meet our clean energy goals.

Airport workers, many of whom are people of color, immigrants and women, are essential to our nation’s aviation system, keeping cabins clean, airports and passengers secure, and elderly and disabled passengers cared for. They have worked through a global pandemic, climate disasters and record-breaking travel seasons. 

Aviation emissions impact workers and their communities in several key ways – from the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change to the localized air pollutants that harm the health of people who live near or work at airports.

Just five airlines account for two-thirds of the domestic market share. While the small number of airlines that comprise the industry continue to consolidate their power over passengers and saw historic revenues, that success does not lift up all industry workers. Airline lobbyists fought hard to weaken the economic standards of these workers, and have repeatedly opposed living wage increases and healthcare standards for aviation industry workers throughout the country – even while a global pandemic wreaked havoc on our health and economic security.

Industry-scale steps are needed to address commercial aviation’s outsized role in climate change, and California leaders must ensure that these solutions do not simply reinforce the environmental and economic racism airport workers and residents of airport-adjacent communities are fighting against. The CARB scoping plan deserves support. Its recommendations, along with similar policies, can create an accountable and equitable path forward.

If California residents want to achieve the goal of a clean energy future, we cannot continue subsidizing the commercial airline industry while they avoid serious accountability.

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