How can I go about choosing the most environmentally responsible airline?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Oct. 2 2007 11:35 AM

Jet Green?

How to book your flight on an environmentally responsible airline.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Due to the demands of business and far-flung relatives, I have to fly a dozen times per year, maybe more. I know those mammoth jet engines are bad for the environment and that the best solution would be to take fewer flights. But since that's not a viable option, how can I go about choosing a green airline—or, at the very least, one that's genuinely trying to be green?

Start by asking your preferred carriers whether they fly the newest, snazziest jets. As a general rule of thumb, each generation of airplanes is more energy efficient than the last, which is why today's jets guzzle 70 percent less fuel than their 1960s predecessors. That increase in efficiency is partly due to the development of less voracious engines, but also to more aerodynamic designs. You know those raked wingtips that started popping up a few years back, notably on the Boeing 767-400? By reducing drag, they improve fuel efficiency by up to 5 percent. And the forthcoming Boeing 787 Dreamliner may well be the greenest commercial jet yet, thanks to an array of subtle fuel-saving tricks. Instead of relying on its engines to control cabin pressure, for example, the 787 uses an electric pump.

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You should also pay attention to an airline's on-time record, as tracked by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. (Click here to look up the record for a particular carrier.) A lot of fuel is needlessly burned while jets idle on the tarmac or circle around an airport awaiting clearance to land. A good way to avoid such wasteful delays is to route your trips through smaller airports, where you're less likely to encounter endless takeoff and landing queues. That strategy won't really work, however, if it requires adding a layover to your trip. Since jets use their engines most when revving up for arrival and departure, it's always greenest to fly nonstop.

You can try asking a potential carrier whether they've instituted any specific measures to curtail fuel consumption, such as taxiing with two engines instead of four, or whether they've instructed pilots to power down their engines and glide when it's safe to do so. Just don't be too surprised if your inquiry is met with a clueless "Huh?"—as far as the Lantern knows, only Virgin Atlantic has announced that it's taken such steps, though a few other airlines may have done so quietly.

Lastly, you can look for airlines that offer voluntary carbon offsets. Delta, for example, now lets passengers offset their trips' carbon emissions by opting to donate to the Conservation Fund's Go Zero program. (The tab for assuaging your guilt is $5.50 per domestic flight and $11 for international journeys.) While the Lantern is still highly skeptical of the efficacy of carbon offsets—a topic that's sure to come up in this column many, many times—at least Delta is demonstrating that it's hip to the consequences of air travel.

And those consequences can be rather nasty. Granted, air travel is a relatively modest spewer of carbon dioxide, at least compared with cars and trucks. The airline industry estimates that its planes account for just 2 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, though some environmentalists put the figure closer to 5 percent. Whatever the true percentage, it's widely believed that airplane emissions are particularly harmful to the environment because of the altitude at which they're released; the carbon dioxide may start affecting the atmosphere right away, instead of wafting upwards and dissipating en route.

In addition to emitting carbon dioxide, their engines also spit out nitrogen oxide, which creates ozone high in the atmosphere. And jet contrails may help form cirrus clouds, which are alleged to contribute to global warming.

No matter how many American consumers share your eco-conscious mindset, alas, the situation is pretty much guaranteed to get a great deal worse before it gets better. Efficiency gains among U.S. and European airlines are largely being canceled out by the soaring number of commercial flights in Africa, Asia, and South America: Global passenger traffic will double by 2025. And a lot of carriers in the developing world use older, fuel-slurping planes, often purchased from their American counterparts.

All jets, even the brand-new ones, use fuel composed of kerosene (known in the United States as Jet-A). Aircraft manufacturers have experimented with a variety of alternatives, including biofuel blends made from camelina, switchgrass, and eucalyptus. But none of these work as well as kerosene, which isn't dramatically affected by the frigid temperatures at 35,000 feet. And even if one of the experimental alt-fuels turned out to be a winner, current jets—which can fly for 30 years—can't be easily retrofitted to accept anything other than kerosene.

There is a smattering of hope on the horizon, as Rolls-Royce develops engines that will emit 80 percent less nitrogen oxide and nations streamline their air traffic control systems to lessen delays. Also, take a little heart in the fact that it's in the airlines' interest to keep greening their operations; they feel the gas-pump pinch as surely as you do.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com and check this space every Tuesday.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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