Today: 10 tips for sustainable air travel
Yesterday was Earth Day, a moment to reflect about the environmental impact of our travels, especially when it comes to booking a flight. Air travel is widely regarded as the least environmentally-friendly way to get around the world, despite its incredible efficiency in covering a wide distance in a short time. There’s no getting around it: aircraft engines burn fuel, which release Carbon Dioxide (CO₂), so the more we fly, the more CO₂ goes into the atmosphere. Aviation is now responsible for 2% of all global carbon emissions and that will only increase in the future as the number of air passengers is expected to double in 20 years. The good news is that earth-conscious travelers can make a difference by adjusting their air travel preferences and habits. Here are 10 tips to fly as sustainable as possible.
- Make use of alternative, more environmentally friendly forms of transport such as rail or motor coach for short-haul travel. Aircraft use more fuel during takeoff and landing than cruising, so for shorter flights, this accounts for a larger proportion of the journey. This is worth considering when traveling shorter distances you could reach by other means. For example, going by high-speed train from Paris to Brussels is not only greener, it also goes faster than traveling by plane.
- Consider carbon offsetting for lowering your impact as an air traveler. Carbon offsetting is a way to “neutralize” your proportion of an aircraft’s carbon emissions on a particular journey by investing in carbon reduction projects. Over 30 airlines have introduced an offset program either integrated into their web-sales engines or to a third party offset provider. For example, when you fly with KLM, you can choose the airline’s CO2ZERO service when you book a flight and contribute to the ‘CO2OL Tropical Mix’ reforestation initiative in Panama where so far at least 7,5 million trees have been planted.
- Consider flying Economy Class as stretching out in luxury in Business & First Class comes at a high cost for the environment. That’s because passengers in a plane’s premium cabin use more space and are thus accountable for a greater share of the aircraft’s fuel consumption. To give you an idea, according to a study by the United Kingdom’s Department for Business Energy & Industrial Strategy, carbon emissions per passenger per mile traveled are about three times higher for Business Class and four times higher for First Class when compared to Economy Class.
- Pack lightly. Every pound of a weight on a plane increases the amount of fuel that it burns, so the heavier your luggage, the higher your carbon footprint. Reducing your luggage by 15 kg (33 lbs) could save between 100 and 200 kg (220 to 440 lbs) of CO2 emissions on a return flight from London to Lisbon. According to Delta Airlines, “If customers pack lighter, making simple changes like leaving that extra pair of shoes at home the annual environmental impact from reduced fuel consumption is the equivalent to removing 10,500 cars from the road for an entire year.”
- Choose daytime flights as this is believed to be a more eco-friendly and sustainable mean of air travel. Studies show that airplanes can contribute to global warming because their contrails can trap heat radiating up from earth that would otherwise escape our planet. This is especially the case during the nighttime because during the day, the contrails partially offset the heat trap effect by radiating light from the sun away from the earth.
- Take a non-stop flight. Since take-off and landing burns the most fuel (up to 50% of a flight’s emissions), flying point-to-point without stopovers is the best way to reduce your carbon emissions when flying. So with the dawn of ultra long-haul flights such as Qantas’ London to Perth route and its anticipated “Project Sunrise” connecting Sydney with New York, London and Paris (due in 2023), we may expect to travel halfway around the world with a much lower carbon footprint and in a more sustainable way.
- Opt for one of the vegan or vegetarian in flight meal options as a meat-based meal has a carbon footprint 50% greater than a plant-based meal (animal agriculture produces around a fifth of all man-made greenhouse gas emission). Airlines serve an estimated one billion inflight meals every year, so choosing a plant-based options can help reduce the industry’s carbon emissions. Fortunately, many airlines are currently expanding their vegan and vegetarian options in light of consumer demand for more sustainable air travel. For example, Qatar Airways’ menus include vegan dishes like spiralised courgettes with arrabbiata sauce, Asian barbecue tofu with noodles, cauliflower couscous with Kalamata olive bruschetta; and chickpea flour omelette.
- Take a low-waste flight. Prior to the corona pandemic, airline passengers generated over 7.3 million tons of cabin waste. The key culprit here is plastic, including plastic-wrapped blankets, disposable toothbrushes, single-use cutlery and non-compostable coffee cups. A plastic straw, for example, can take up to 200 years to break down in the environment – also resulting in wildlife ingesting it and causing harm. But change is coming. In January 2019, Portuguese airline Hi Fly completed the world’s first plastic-free flight (from Poprtugal to Brazil). Other airlines including Emirates, Qantas and Air New Zealand quickly followed suit and have introduced plans to significantly reduce the amount of waste they send to landfill.
- Pick airlines with modern, fuel-efficient planes such as the Airbus A350 and Boeing B787, the first large commercial aircraft to be constructed extensively from lightweight composites (which accounts for 53% and 50% of the A350 and B787 fuselage respectively). The main advantage of composites is that these components are lighter than similar parts made of aluminium, which means a lighter aircraft and thus less fuel burn. In addition, carbon-fiber reinforced polymers have increased resistance to corrosion and don’t suffer from fatigue to the same extent as aluminum, which translates into more durable airframes and lower maintenance costs.
- Fly an environmentally conscious airline that is supportive of sustainable air travel by minimizing its carbon emissions. Fortunately, there are websites such as alternativeairlines.com that help you find the greenest airline. For example, Etihad Airways and Boeing have an eco-partnership, in which a specially-themed Boeing 787 Dreamliner is used to test products, procedures and initiatives designed to reduce aircraft carbon emissions. The ‘Etihad Greenliner’ is used to assess environmental sustainability initiatives (e.g. changed operating practices to weight-saving initiatives) while the aircraft operates scheduled services across the airline’s network.