On a recent holiday weekend flight between two West Coast cities, I thought about the thoughtful and harmful things my travel companion and I had done in regards to the environment the day we traveled. We’d recycled, turned down our thermostats, and taken public transportation to San Francisco International Airport (whose low-flow toilets and green rental car program get industry kudos). But we also threw out Styrofoam cups, idled on a runway while our plane wasted fuel, and were picked up in an SUV. Could we have been more conscientious about the effect our travel choices have on the planet?
It’s no surprise that flights were the most negatively impactful part of our trip. Fortunately, research into more efficient engines and alternative fuels has been promising in the past few years, and travelers now face more options when it comes to choosing airlines with sustainable business practices. Although major policy and research decisions on air travel efficiency are out of the hands of most consumers, we can positively impact where the industry is headed through our choice of carriers.
Green Good Deeds: Choosing Airlines Beyond Fares
A few airlines have demonstrated leadership and commitment to eco-friendlier travel through their use of alternative fuels over long distance flights and willingness to work with one another. Some have also made a splash with their research and use of sustainable biofuels-fuels made from biological material high in sugar and oil-that are different from the fossil fuels currently being tapped out. The Central American airline NatureAir, the first certified carbon-neutral airline, runs its ground vans with biofuel created from cooking oil to protect forests in Southern Costa Rica where it operates.
Although foreign airlines have received the most media attention for green good deeds (for example, British Airways’ sustainable biofuel research partnership with engine maker Rolls Royce and Emirates Airline’s longest green flight between San Francisco and Dubai), several domestic carriers deserve a nod for their environmental efforts.
After working to save $42 million in fuel in 2008 by extending each flight by one to three minutes (slowing down improves engine efficiency and ultimately saves fuel, just like it does for drivers), Southwest’s cross-departmental green team pushed for more environmental and profit-friendly innovation by introducing employee ride-share programs on the ground and adding winglets to the end of plane wings to save nearly 30 million gallons of jet fuel annually. As part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Blue Skyways Collaborative, the airline also works to voluntarily reduce its emissions and share technological expertise with other service companies.
The new kid on the block has the youngest fleet among major U.S. airlines, making it an estimated 30 percent more carbon- and fuel-efficient than other carriers. In the style of other Virgin Group companies (including Virgin Atlantic, whose London to Amsterdam flight powered by a biofuel combination of babassu and coconut oil gained public attention last year), a portion of the domestic airline’s profits go into renewable fuel research. Virgin America also uses single-engine taxiing and cruise speed regulation on every flight to reduce climate change impact.
This airline makes corporate gifts to the Nature Conservancy and started a Green Miles nonprofit program so that customers could support the organization’s efforts to conserve the Pacific Northwest by donating miles they’ve earned. Onboard, Alaska recycles in-flight magazines printed with soy-based inks as well as bottles of the socially conscious Jones Soda that the airline serves instead of major cola products.
In April, responsible travel news provider TerraCurve reported that American Airlines is flying the first of the nearly eighty more efficient Boeing 737-800 planes it will be adding over the next two years. Each new plane will burn about 28 percent less fuel per mile than current planes.
American Airlines also was the first major airline to join the EPA’s Climate Leaders program, of which Virgin America is the only other participating airline and Boeing is the only aerospace member. Companies in the industry-government partnership commit to reduce their environmental impact by completing inventories of their greenhouse gas emissions and by setting reduction goals. All members agree to report their progress to the EPA annually. American has committed to a 30 percent reduction in its greenhouse gas-intensity ratio by 2025.
Virgin’s greenhouse gas reduction goals are still said to be being developed, and the airline is the first to commit to report its emissions to the nonprofit Climate Registry.
These days, we don’t have to dive into aviation industry communications to make savvy travel choices; more lifestyle news outlets have begun covering the topic due to increased consumer interest in eco and cost-saving coverage. Several airlines have also started making their environmental statements and assessments easily available online with American Airlines, Southwest, and JetBlue leading the charge.
Article by Emily Goligoski for DivineCaroline. First published April 2009.
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