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

Business travel feels inescapable, but it might not be. Before you book tickets, consider whether you can make a virtual appearance. Maybe participants can meet via video-conference. Is this a case where it would be acceptable to call in? A good argument to make: saving your employer money.

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

Cut paper waste by buying e-tickets. Incredulous? So were we, but according to the International Air Transport Association, which is working to convert every airline in the world entirely to e-ticketing by spring 2008, such a move will save 50,000 mature trees or about 3 square miles of forest annually. (Of course, an airline ticket is different from the paper boarding pass, which you’ll still need to get through security.)

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.


All those soda cans add up. The NRDC found in a recent study (PDF) that in the United States alone we throw away enough aluminum cans annually to build 58 Boeing 747s. That’s quite a fleet. To stay in compliance with the TSA’s liquid rule, but still do your part, bring an empty reusable bottle in your carry-on and fill it at a water fountain in the airport. If you’re squeamish about tap water, you can bring a container that has a built-in filter.

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.


Can’t find a recycling container at the airport? The airport might have a program that sorts recyclables from trash offsite. If you’re unsure, bring that newspaper or empty glass bottle home and add it to your own recycling. According to Airports Council International-North America, an international airport representative organization, the Environmental Protection Agency is working with U.S. airports to develop best practices for recycling. The council reports that the following airports have strong recycling programs: Dallas, Seattle, Phoenix, Oakland, Boston, Los Angeles, and Chicago. For details about environmental programs at airports across the country, check here.

Story by Alyssa Danigelis. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Flying green
Flying tops the list of eco-sins, but redemption is in sight.