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Fly on airlines with sustainable policies and practices

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When deciding which flight to book, departure and arrival times are important factors. But have you also considered an airline’s environmental policies? Airplanes contribute to global warming by producing 600 million tons of carbon dioxide a year and US airports generate approximately 425,000 tons of garbage.[1][2] What is your favorite airline doing to mitigate its environmental impact?

How to research airlines' green policies and practices

As there is no one resource to find the greenest airline, you'll need to visit each airline’s website and search for information on its environmental policies. Try searching with these terms: "sustainability", "environmental policy", "corporate and social responsibility", "recycling", "carbon emissions", or "carbon offsets". You can also look in the “About Us” section. If you can’t find policy information on an airline’s website that may be a clue to the importance the company places on these issues.

What to look for in green airlines

  • Does the airline’s policy include a target percentage for increasing fuel efficiency? For example, Air Canada’s policy states: “…ambitious goal of improving fuel efficiency by an additional 25 percent between 2006 and 2020."
  • Choose an airline with fewer delays. Planes burn excess fuel while waiting. The US Department of Transportation (DOT) tracks delay information by airline and airport.
  • Does the airline offer a link to carbon offset plans or include the option in a ticket purchase?
  • Does the airline have a newer, more fuel-efficient fleet? For example, easyJet is building its own fuel-efficient planes and Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner (2008 release), will cut fuel use by 20 percent. jetBlue Airways and Flybe use a regional jet model that is lighter and more fuel-efficient than older models.
  • Does the airline’s fleet have winglets? Winglets are wing tip extensions that reduce drag and provide extra lift, cutting fuel use. Eighty-five percent of all new Boeing 737s have them and more than 50 percent have been retrofitted.[3]
  • Does the airline have a system to recapture glycol after it's sprayed on airplanes in de-icing operations?
  • Does the airline have a recycling program for trash on-board and in the terminal?

Tips to minimize your environmental impact when flying

  • Write to your airline of choice and tell them your desire to see them become more eco-friendly. Encourage them to establish recycling programs, fuel-efficient practices, and carbon offsetting programs.
  • Travel light! Reduce the number of bags you check or carry with you. The heavier the plane, the more fuel it uses (and the more greenhouse gas emissions). Alaska Airlines found that it could save $10,000 per year in fuel costs by removing just five magazines per aircraft.
  • Book a direct flight. Take-offs and landings are a major source of CO2 emissions.
  • Pack your own lunch or snacks in reusable containers to limit fast-food waste.
  • When you get to your destination, use eco-friendly ground transportation, such as using your hotel’s shuttle if provided. Or, use a green rental car service.
  • If you're able to choose between one of two airports, choose one that promotes a recycling program. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) praises the programs initiated by these airports: Los Angeles International Airport, Fort Lauderdale International Airport, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and Portland International Airport.

Flying on an airline with sustainable policies and practices helps you go green because…

  • Your trip will have fewer environmental impacts than if you booked with an airline that does not support recycling, better fuel efficiency, and other green initiatives.
  • You support resourceful companies working to reduce their environmental impacts.

Flying to Europe and back from the US contributes 3 to 4 tons of CO2 per person. That’s more than what 20 people in Bangladesh produce per year and roughly half the CO2 produced by the average American annually via all other sources (home heating, lighting, driving a car, etc.)[4][5] According to projections by the US Federal Aviation Administration, aircraft greenhouse gas emissions in the US will increase 60 percent by 2025.[6]

Air travel and climate change

Air travel affects the earth’s climate in three ways:

  1. Emissions of greenhouse gases, including CO2 and water vapor at high altitude, contribute to the greenhouse effect.
  2. Emissions of nitrogen oxides in the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere mix with ozone, methane, and other greenhouse gases, and has a larger impact than nitrogen oxides emitted at ground level. For example, at higher altitudes, nitrogen oxides can lead to decreases in the ozone layer, which is the layer that protects the earth from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation.
  3. The formation of contrails that may increase cirrus cloud cover, further compounding the greenhouse effect.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notes that greenhouse gas pollution from flying aircraft may be up to four times more damaging to the environment than the same levels of pollution emitted at ground level.[7]

Other eco-impacts

In addition to bearing a growing carbon footprint, air travel impacts the environment in two other significant ways. Firstly, more than 4 million gallons of glycols were used for aircraft de-icing at just 93 airports during 1989 to 1991. Without recapture efforts, 50 to 80 percent of these chemicals can migrate to local waterways.[8] This chemical, according to the NRDC, can be toxic to fish, wildlife, and humans.[9]

And then there's the matter of waste. In 2004, US airports generated 425,000 tons of trash from on-board and terminal trash cans. Approximately 75 percent of the trash could be recycled, yet the airline industry’s recycling rate is estimated to be only 20 percent.[10]

Examples of airlines with sustainable policies and practices

  • British Airways' stated policy says the airline will improve aircraft fuel efficiency 25 percent by 2025, reduce energy use on the ground 10 percent by 2009, and send no waste to the landfill by 2010. In addition, the company has saved 50,000 tons of CO2 over two years by flying shorter, more direct international routes.
  • Continental Airlines' policy has established programs to reduce emissions in the air and on the ground, and increase recycling. Continental's investment in a fuel-efficient fleet has reduced greenhouse gas emissions and fuel consumption by 35 percent per passenger mile flown.
  • Flight attendants at Delta Air Lines initiated an on-board recycling program at a few hubs that will have expanded to all domestic flights by the end of 2008. Delta also offers carbon offsets during ticket purchasing.
  • Virgin Atlantic is investing all profits for 10 years in programs to develop renewable energy technologies. The airline recently conducted a test flight using, in part, biofuels. The airline’s goal is to improve fuel efficiency by 30 percent by 2020.

Glossary

  • contrails: Line-shaped clouds or condensation trails produced by aircraft engine exhaust. These clouds would not have formed in the sky without the passage of an aircraft.
  • greenhouse effect: A naturally occurring process that warms the earth's atmosphere and surface. This rise in temperature is a result of atmospheric gases trapping energy from the sun.

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