Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Airline Conundrum

The Airline Conundrum
by Steve Gersman

Aircraft account for less than 1.7% of all greenhouse gases although some claim higher figures (The Stern Report). Zip up to 30,000 feet and the emissions of aircraft are multiplied by a factor of 2.7. It’s a natural phenomenon called radiative forcing.

The Stern Review in the U.K. indicates that power stations account for 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions, shipping, train and road transport account for 12.3% and flying accounts for a mere 1.7%. Worldwide deforestation, on the other hand, accounts for 18% (mostly in Brazil and Indonesia).

So it looks, at first glance, that we would be better off to focus on sources of the problem other than aircraft.

However, that is only part of the story. One thing on which all sides agree is that aviation is booming. There are about 17,700 commercial aircraft in the world. Over the next 20 years, manufacturers expect to deliver 25,600 new planes.

Tom Robbins wrote in “The big green dilemma” ( The Observer July 1, 2007), that those demanding an elimination of air travel assume that “tourism is a frivolous, self-indulgent activity which is as pointless as leaving your TV on standby. Even putting aside the benefits to the tourists themselves, this is clearly not the case. Tourism employs around 231 million people, and generates 8-10 per cent of world GDP.”

How can we as consumers do our part? One of the best ways to travel by air if you are an environmentally conscious consumer is to know which airlines operate the newest fleet of aircraft. The newer the plane, the more efficient an airline is in terms of CO2 emissions and other environmental factors. Here is a list of major American airlines calculated in 2010 and 2011.

Average Age in Years*
AirTran 8.1
Colgan Air 
Jazz 16.1
Mesa Airlines 
Virgin America**

Source: (2011)

* The numbers haven’t changed much between 2010 and 2011. It takes time to replace aircraft. Airlines have ordered brand new aircraft but many will take years to deliver and impact the overall age of the fleet.

**Of major significance is the absence of Virgin America in the list. Virgin America was the number one airline for age of fleet in the Greenopia calculation made less than a year before. Given that it is a new airline, there is good reason to believe that Virgin America would rate extremely high on this list had it been included.

A great example of how airlines have become more efficient is Thomas Cook Scandinavia which has the industry’s highest utilisation of seats and the industry’s lowest fuel consumption and CO2 emissions per passenger 66g per passenger. Thomas Cook Airlines UK and Thomas Cook Airlines Scandinavia have both received the ISO14001 certification for implementing an environmental management system. Only a handful of airlines worldwide have achieved this and two are part of the Thomas Cook Group. Thomas Cook were pioneers of waste management and in flight recycling.

Source: Responsible Aviation Conference at Manchester Airport

Two steps to FlySmart
1. Fly less – take the train wherever possible; reduce your air miles for leisure and work.
2. Fly more carbon efficiently – make purchasing choices that will encourage airlines to reduce their emissions.
Fly direct
Choose a charter flight or economy - your emissions will generally be less.
Choose the airline with the most modern fleet
Carry less baggage
Fly with airlines that fill their planes

Airlines and aircraft manufacturers are making a contribution in their new planes and in other areas such as not running engines until ready to pull back from the gate. Sometimes being environmentally conscious consumer can be a bit inconvenient, but often it doesn’t have to be with some advanced planning.

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