Legal eagle Nancy Young keeps eye on the environment for airlines


Lean Into Aviation (3)Nancy Young came to the world of aviation by a rather circuitous route while working on environmental issues on behalf of airlines as an attorney in private practice.

“And like most people in our world, I caught the aviation ‘bug’,” she confesses. “It is such a dynamic sector with great people. Rather than just providing counsel to those people, I wanted to BE one of those people.”

Today, she is one of “those” people as a Vice President of airline trade association Airlines for America (A4A), where her focus is primarily on environmental issues. The organization represents the interests of major US airlines. Young, a graduate of Harvard Law School, previously was a partner in a law firm and worked as a legislative assistant to a US Congressman.

Nancy Young hedshot a

Nancy Young

She approaches environmental issues not as an activist but rather as a pragmatist. “Environmental stewardship is built into the business model of aviation. That is how we have made aviation a green engine of economic growth.”

Most of the action takes place has been behind the scenes, she says, ticking off a list that includes the implementation of cutting edge technology, the way planes fly, delivery of fuel and managing deicing runoff along with a wide variety of other initiatives.

“Part of my job is to shine a light on these things and create additional opportunities for environmental excellence through sharing of ideas and best practices,” she explains.

Currently, airlines, airports and manufacturers are working to make alternative fuels a reality. “The work Airlines for America is doing with partners in the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative and Farm to Fly program, among others will quite literally get these fuels off the ground,” says Young. The Farm to Fly program is a joint effort with government agencies to develop aviation biofuels from non-food feed stocks. “The words I would use are ‘committed’, and hence, ‘optimistic’.”

She is also working on a global carbon offset program to support the effort to achieve neutral carbon growth from 2020 – a challenging as well as exciting initiative, says Young.

“This program, which is under development and subject to negotiation at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), would work in tandem with the technology, operations and infrastructure measures our airlines employ to reduce fuel burn and carbon emissions,” says Young. “We’re committed to making this work, but doing so means bringing 191 ICAO member states to agreement.”

Jeff Gazzard from the Aviation Environment Federation questions whether some of the environmental goals being set by the aviation industry will be met. “If we get 10% biofuels by 2050, I will turn myself into a banana. I think that it’s a realistic target, but I also think it’s not going to happen,” he tells RGN.

The environmental advocate agrees that aerospace is delivering efficiencies in aircraft and engine technology, and air traffic management. And airline consolidation – such as that which has occurred in the US – “is vital” because it means unprofitable routes will go by the way side. “But if the best aviation can deliver from all of those efficiency gains is about 1% to 2% per year, and growth is still 3% to 4%, then your emissions will always rise, and that’s what all the forecasts show.”

Gazzard does, however, see Young as “a compelling advocate” who “works very hard”. And he attests to engaging in “some extremely robust debates” with her.

Young, meanwhile, has never been bitten by the bug that drives people to the cockpit and she doesn’t expect that will happen. “Some of my best friends are pilots,” she says, adding that the closest she has come to actual flying is being in a flight simulator where she learned continuous descent approaches and other flight procedures designed to reduce noise and emissions. “Understanding flight operations is important to my work, but I’ll leave the real flying to the professionals.”

Young is convinced she landed in the right place and does not question her career path in aviation. “There are so many opportunities – even environmental attorneys can have careers in commercial aviation.”