For many people, there’s no simple way around a long flight home. And all of those flights add up. The carbon emissions from airplanes are substantial, accounting for 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Every year the US airline industry alone consumes billions of gallons of jet fuel. Any alternative jet fuel must be affordable and be able to withstand extreme cold in the air—something no one has successfully cracked yet. Meanwhile, efforts to streamline air traffic control, limit flights by imposing higher taxes, and cap emissions have gotten stuck in red tape.
But don’t despair. As a traveler, you do have a modicum of control, and that doesn’t just mean buying guilt-assuaging carbon offsets. Until the industry is transformed from the inside out, here are a few ways that you can fly more responsibly:
Before you book
Taking a direct flight can be more expensive, but it’s worth the extra bucks not only for the convenience and speed but for the reduced environmental effect. That’s at least one more takeoff and landing you don’t have to make. Exact numbers are hard to find, but Finnair estimates that passengers can cut up to 30 percent of the emissions their trip produces by taking a direct flight.
Choose an airline that has a relatively new fleet. The newest planes tend to be far more fuel efficient than older ones. It’s in an airline’s best interest to fly the most fuel-efficient planes because fuel accounts for nearly 30 percent of an airline’s annual operating costs, but buying new planes is an expensive endeavor. From oldest to youngest fleets, here are the average ages we found: Northwest: 18 years; United: 12; Delta: 11; US Airways: 10.7; Continental: 10; Southwest Airlines: 9; American Airlines: 6.77; JetBlue: 3.1.
Getting ready to go
Packing lighter does make a difference. Reconsider that extra pair of shoes or those three sweaters. The Air Transport Action Group says an aircraft can save more than 4,000 gallons of fuel each year for every pound that a passenger doesn’t lug aboard. If every U.S. airline passenger packed one less pound, the annual jet fuel savings would equal roughly 33 million gallons of fuel. That’s the equivalent of 11,000 cross-country flights.
As long as you’re not breaking the TSA’s liquid rules, it should be safe to haul your own food in reusable containers. It will likely taste better, and there’s less plastic waste from it. The airline will probably be glad you did because it’s one less meal they have to think about…if they were thinking about it. You might want to avoid taking pudding with you, though.
Story by Alyssa Danigelis. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2007.