Three years ago, on a flight to Portland from New York, I had a minor epiphany fueled by an eco-anxiety crisis. The weather was "unseasonably warm" (again), and there I was, complacently enabling an airline to spew out greenhouse gases on my behalf. Feeling guilty and scared for the future of the planet is never fun, but at 35,000 feet it's soul-crushing.

Then, somewhere over Idaho, it hit me — I could fly carbon neutral! I'd read about online services that let people calculate their carbon output and donate money to projects around the world that offset those emissions. My breathing slowly returned to normal and, as soon as I settled into my friend's house where I was staying, I logged onto the Carbon Neutral Company's website and made my donation.

It seems that I'm not the only one to feel the burn of carbon emissions. From airline industry moguls like Richard Branson to the entire European Union, offsetting and taxing airline emissions is the new black. Last May, for example, JetBlue Airways announced its Jetting to Green program, which community relations director Icema Gibbs describes as "an environmental campaign with a comprehensive approach."

Through Jetting to Green, the airline committed to a series of environmental initiatives. It minimizes overall emissions from its fleet by using only one engine to taxi on the runway, seeking out the most fuel-efficient routes for flights, and installing lighter seats and LED lighting, which reduces the overall weight of the plane. Meanwhile, it eliminated disposable headsets and an in-flight magazine, which saves plastic and paper. (Terra Chips and roasted almonds are still available.) It increased recycling efforts on flights and at the John F. Kennedy airport in New York, which serves as JetBlue's home base. The company has also reduced paper usage by eliminating paper tickets and offering smaller boarding passes.

On a grander scale, it committed to supporting the work of environmental organizations like the Kerzner Marine Foundation's Blue Project, and supporting biofuel development, partnering with other companies and organizations to develop alternative jet fuels that don't compete with existing food production.

Perhaps most noticeably to customers, JetBlue partnered with CarbonFund to create a specialized carbon-offsetting program, which can be accessed on the JetBlue website. After booking, passengers can click to the offset page and donate to a reforestation project in Louisiana and to a wind farm in Texas, among others.

JetBlue hit the air running when it opened for business 10 years ago, quickly establishing its reputation as a quirky, likable company that offered a welcome alternative to the list of behemoth airline options. But when it comes to environmental innovation, is JetBlue paving the way for other airlines, or simply jumping onto the greenwashing PR trend? More importantly, are the company's efforts to spruce up its environmental efforts and "empower" passengers to pay penance for their environmental impact really making a significant difference?

Maybe. But unfortunately, the one thing JetBlue would never do (nor would any company that relies on customer revenue) is encourage customers to fly less. According to Grist, "Domestic aircraft emissions are expected to rise 60 percent by 2025." That's a lot of offsetting. So while it certainly doesn't hurt to foster recycling and save some fuel here and there, for now, the environmental work at JetBlue accomplishes little more than assuaging my flying guilt. 

(MNN homepage photo: Deejpilot/iStockPhoto)

Flying the eco-friendly skies
JetBlue soars into the wild green yonder, offering carbon offsets and a range of other environmental perks, but how much good is it really doing?