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Today there is a growing awareness that business-as-usual corporate and lifestyle practices jeopardize the health of the planet and the ability of future generations to sustain a good quality of life. Awareness in turn has created a confusing array of sustainability-oriented decisions. The Greenophobe takes a skeptical, practical, informed look at a variety of sustainability topics. Explore a mix of common sense solutions and in-depth discussions that demystify how to live green and live well.



29 November 2009

Take The Bite Out of Flight: Green Tips for Air Travel


What's greener than a massive jet roaring down the runway fed by 60,000 pounds of thrust from two engines the size of buses whining away at max pitch? Just about everything else imaginable, except for perhaps the space shuttle.

Air travel is a necessary miracle of modern life. It's often essential to making money, to visiting with distant friends and family, and to exploring the treasured destinations across the world that remind us what we're trying to preserve in the first place. The average Greenophobe's criteria for the greening of air travel is, not surprisingly, predictable and practical:

  1. Spend the least
  2. Get there quickly and comfortably
  3. Be practical

Thankfully, the very nature of air travel means there are a ton of natural air travel tips and tricks that accomplish all three greenophobic priorities while seriously greening up your experience. 

Whether you would just like to learn about what's on The Greenophobe's menu for greening up air travel, or you're ready to commit to a more comprehensive strategy to address your current carbon footprint, these quick tips are the foundation for what you need to know about traveling green(er) and traveling well by air:

  • REPLICATE THE FIRST CLASS EXPERIENCE, IN ECONOMY
  • USE YOUR INFLUENCE: PASS GREEN FLIGHT LEGISLATION
  • HEY, CHEAPO: FLY NONSTOP
  • RED-EYE RULES: FLY OFF-PEAK
  • LOSE THE WEIGHT: FLY LIGHT
  • WHO ACTUALLY LIKES TO FLY? CONSIDER "BETTER" ALTERNATIVES
  • EN ROUTE: OPPORTUNITIES TO LEAVE LESS BEHIND
  • OFFSET
Each of these topics is explored in more detail in this article.
Chances are that your air travel activities ranging from once per month to once per year are a significant contributor to your overall carbon footprint. It only takes about fifteen flights to equal your total from all other sources. When air travel is an option, you should be very concerned. If not for interest in your environmental impact then for the strong correlation between air travel cost and the amount of emissions you are responsible for generating. If you fly more than ten times per year, it's likely that air travel (and its associated travel activities) accounts for a majority of your carbon output and a gigantic price tag.

Thankfully, in the realm of air travel we don't have to search hard for real solutions that result in real benefit. Its because the business models of major airlines and the green science of what's least harmful for the environment also align quite nicely with these common goals in several important places. Air travel is one of the things that has built-in efficiency. Airlines seek to minimize unused capacity using complex algorithms that determine seat pricing, schedules and routes. This results in the lowest possible fuel consumption per seat. With the fuel bill surpassing pilot and crew salaries, aircraft maintenance and operations combined, you can be certain that reducing fuel burn is a serious priority. As long as fuel prices rise, the efficiency pressures will become increasingly aggressive.

Aside from what's already being done for you by the industry, there are tons of practical ways to squeeze more efficiency out of the inherently polluting air travel experience (and lots of room for innovation as well). Some air travel efficiency initiatives are big picture, speicific to your air travel behaviors, while others will overlap tips for making life better on the ground as well as in the skies.

REPLICATE THE FIRST CLASS EXPERIENCE, IN ECONOMY
Coach is king when it comes to reducing your emissions footprint from flight.  While actual numbers will vary based on the specific aircraft you are flying and the route, the following example shows real ratios used by TRX Travel Analytics, a firm that provides data to support carbon output calculation from air travel. 

TRX provides these sample figures for a 777 model aircraft on a sample journey from Chicago (ORD) to London Heathrow (LHR). A passenger in a first class seat is allocated a share of CO2 output of three times that of an economy class passenger.  To learn more about CO2 output per seat and what you can do no matter what cabin class you're seated in, read on to learn about offsets.

If you're thinking about using elite status to take that coveted first class upgrade, you're not helping the situation even if the seat may be "free".  Forego the upgrade and you might be frustrated that first class seats may sit empty altogther, or that someone who's next on the upgrade list will just snatch up the high altitude couch that you could have occupied if not for your green itch.  Rest assured, it's not that simple. Only large scale forces of supply and demand will have a definitive impact on cabin seat classifications on planes over time.

Nearly all plane cabins feature reconfigurable seating that airlines can change to meet the needs of the route and expected clientele that the equipment is serving. In plain sight, first class consumes three times more aircraft real estate than coach seating (at up to ten times the price).  By simply occupying these wasteful seats -- even if you're cashing in a free upgrade -- you're influencing demand.  Plus, you might be tempted by increased baggage allowances and  (see Fly Light, below). By sucking it up and camping out in coach, you're doing your part, which is all you can do, after all.

Unless you're 6' 3" and really need the leg room, you can make an environmentally sensitive switch to economy more painless than you envision by going on a fun gadget shopping spree. With the money you'll save on just your first economy flight, treat yourself to some of these cool in-flight gadgets and replicate the first class experience, sans giant carbon footprint, while you sit in coach. 

  1. Plug in noise cancelling headphones to drown out crying babies and engine noise
  2. Myvu video eyewear for a cinematic big-screen experience from your portable DVD player
  3. Kindle or Nook eBook reader
  4. Privacy filter for your laptop, from 3M. Stops prying eyes while you're sitting in close proximity to others.
  5. Earphone jack charger: many economy seats don't have power ports but a new gizmo plugs into the aircraft audio jack and generates enough current to charge your small devices
USE YOUR INFLUENCE: PASS GREEN FLIGHT LEGISLATION
If you're a manager, CEO, parent, friend, head of household, or human being, you have a sphere of influence.  You personally impact the decisions someone else makes about their flight habits, whether directly or indirectly.  To put a signficant dent in flight-related carbon emissions, think beyond your own behavior to the flight habits of those who look to you for guidance. 

Maybe you'll require employees who travel first class on the company dollar to purchase carbon offsets out of pocket. Better yet, you might offer a cash reward equal to half the fare difference between coach and first class for execs who voluntarily fly coach. Your firm could then bank the relative carbon reduction and cost savings as a way to meet your overall environmental objectives.

HEY, CHEAPO: FLY DIRECT
Route matters. Choose direct flights over indirect ones when available. The chances of you arriving at your destination on-time, in satisfactory condition, and with your bags safely at your side is much higher if you minimize the number of legs on your flight. Direct flights are also much more efficient largely due to the amount of fuel saved by limiting take-off and taxi to only once during a trip.  These factors are scientifically calculated using aviation data readily available for different aircraft and flight distances when you use an online calculator to compute your CO2 output.

RED-EYE RULES: FLY OFF-PEAK
There's a reason that offbeat flight times are less expensive and relatively uncrowded. It's not that airlines want to fly empty planes at bargain prices. Some routes have heavier passenger flow in a certain direction at certain times. The plane needs to be there to meet the demand, which often means flying it to the origin before the rush with a lighter than normal load. You can win with off-peak flights primarily by saving money.

Secondarily, you'll be reducing the demand to put more planes in the air at the busiest times, when long take-off queues have planes backed up and idling on runways for long periods. This one is tough to quantify in terms of your individual carbon output. You're likely to look around an empty cabin, sprawled out in your very own row thinking that this is a wasteful but pleasurable tip. But, air travel efficiency is a big picture kind of scenario. What you can see does not always reflect what's really going on. Flying off-peak is good.

LOSE THE WEIGHT: FLY LIGHT
Fly light! The days of free checked bags and bloated carry-ons are over. Security concerns coupled with the rising cost of aviaition fuel have resulted in massive surcharges and strict limitations on baggage. The cost of checking a bag - nevermind an oversized bag - can easily amount to 25% to 50% of the overall fare price. Reducing your baggage load can reduce your individual carbon output substantially. You'll save money and get through the security and check-in process faster, too. The "how to" for reducing your flying weight can be as creative as you are. Go on a diet, for one! (Kidding. Sort of).

To reduce baggage, experienced travelers know to pack clothing items and accessories that do double-duty. One pair of shoes that match everything, rather than three pair that you probably won't even wear. Leave the gadgets home. You owe it to yourself to stay in a hotel that at least features complimentary alarm clocks and hair dryers. If everyone on your flight decided to leave just two gadgets at home, your flight would speed through the air over 1,000 pounds lighter in take-off weight. If you're traveling domestically, consider shipping your large bags ahead of you using a carrier such as UPS Ground. Most carriers offer guranteed delivery nationally within about five days. Seriously. Airlines are barely proficient at moving people. Moving your precious bags is an expensive and inconvenient undertaking best left to the pros in the shipping business.
Some airlines are offering door-to-door baggage service as a mutually beneficial luxury add-on to flying in upper class. Watch for this innovation to hit the mainstream or become a pioneer by rigging your own innovative baggage logistics solution. Airlines and the environment benefit from massive air cargo operations that occur right beneathe your feet when you fly. Unused capacity in the cargo holds of many aircraft is packed with interstate and transcontinental shipments, orchestrated by freight forwarders and custom shipping companies all over the world. Your flight to Denver could be carrying mail, express packages, live animals or any number of fun stowaways. The less space your stuff takes up, the less fuel you burn.

WHO ACTUALLY LIKES TO FLY? CONSIDER "BETTER" ALTERNATIVES
Think before you book. Sky-weary travelers know first hand that air travel has lost its lustre. When traveling for pleasure, give some serious thought to whether the oceans off the gulf coast of Florida are just as blue as the ones further off shore in the Carribean.

Alternatives to flight can frequently yield time, cost and intangible benefits. A three hour train ride between New York and Washington DC sounds tedious compared with a 45 minute flight. But if you factor in the time to/from the airport, arriving an hour early on both ends to get through check-in, plus baggage restrictions, tiny seats and limited freedom, the rail option becomes much more attractive.

For business travelers, in-person meetings between colleagues or clients are typically expensive and may be marginally more effective, or even less effective than conducting the meeting at a distance. Telepresence is the new videoconferencing. It involves the use of multiple cameras, microphones and high def displays that closely simulate in-person interaction. Although your company may not have a state-of-the-art telepresence room, you are probably already set up for advanced conference calling, with interactive features including screen sharing, video, and the ability to share ideas using digital whiteboards and other useful gadgets.

EN ROUTE: OPPORTUNITIES TO LEAVE LESS BEHIND
  1. Traveling to and from airports, consider using a local green car service (Google "green limo").  Mass transit is also an option and while it seems inconvenient when you're gearing up for a long trip, you can avoid traffic and the chance of missing your flight.
  2. Pack your meal in a reusable container and toss it in your carry-on. What you bring from home is going to taste far better and cost less than the soggy food available for purchase at the airport and on-board, plus you'll save tons of wasteful packing materials.
  3. Instead of buying travel-sized products, get some small refillable bottles and stock your own TSA-approved stash of the products you actually like to use. You'll cut down on packaging waste.
  4. Avoid plastic water bottles. Bring your own empty metal water bottle (available in cool designer styles) and fill it up after you go through security. No excuses. Plastic bottles at airports have a strangely powerful magnetism. Something about the dry air makes them especially tempting and before you know it, you've forked over $3.50 for a sip of the most plentiful resource on Earth.

OFFSET
Your flight generates a predictable amount of CO2 gas (and other emissions**) and dumps it directly into the atmosphere where it is ready to do harm as a heat trapping gas.  In addition to CO2, airplane emissions contain other heat trapping vapors (seen in the sky as cloudlike tracks called contrails) and other elements that adversely affect the way heat is reflected by the Earth's atmosphere.

Successfully offsetting the emissions from your flight begins by measuring your CO2 or CO2 equivalent output.  When you use a site such as TerraPass to precisely calculate your output from a specific flight, you'll know that the best available real aviation data and a certified mathematical model are being used to generate your individual impact data.  

By purchasing carbon offsets, you are essentially paying to support initiatives, such as those coordinated by CarbonFund, that can negate your personal CO2 equivalent output. Offsets are available from a variety of reputable sources tasked with taking your dollars and applying them to activities that prevent or remediate CO2 production equal to the amound of CO2 your flight spewed out to move you and your luggage from A to B.  Some initiatives might focus on trapping methane and other heat-trapping gases that affect the atmosphere.  This is common and acceptable because everything is converted back into a CO2 equivalent for the purposes of purchasing and deploying carbon offsets.

If you fly often or for business, you need to understand that as expensive as flights are, the price you pay does not account for the true cost of the emissions generated by your flight. Like other costs of doing business, offsetting your CO2 should be a natural part of your budgeting and expense reporting.  2009 market rates of $5 to $20 per ton of CO2 are likely to increase depending on global coordination across international carbon markets in coming years.  Like any commodity, you can "lock in" now and realize relative gains if carbon prices increase down the road.
If nature could assess taxes, it would slap a few bucks on to every ticket, just as we are accustomed to paying for homeland security fees and airport expenses. Your carbon offset dollars support reforestation efforts, wind farm projects, and many other initiatives that both make life better and make up for the CO2 output from your flights.

**A note on "other emissions" and the debate regarding carbon offsets for aviation: By some measures, airplane emissions are actually believed to be 2.7 times more harmful than CO2 emissions alone in terms of their actual heat-trapping ability. This theory called "radiative forcing" is still being debated in the scientific community. For now, your typical purchase of carbon offsets from flying does NOT include the potential radiative forcing effects of airplane emissions. If you wish to make your own conclusions that radiative forcing is a real phenomenon to be reckoned with, it means that you'll have to purchase 2.7 times more CO2 offsets than are calculated for your flight using current standards.

Summary:
Greenophobes everywhere are now just a bit more optimistic about air travel.  When flights are concerned, efficiency measures often line up nicely with economic factors such as price and convenience.  Plus, the increasing variety of active approaches available to mitigate the environmental impact of flying can be fun, innovative and practical.

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