Greener Flying: Not All Flights are Created Equal (Part 1 of 3)

Here's an Example of Flights
There's nothing better than a specific example to illustrate all this. Let's take a return flight from New York City (JFK airport) to Los Angeles (LAX):

That's 7,940 kilometers, or 4,934 miles.

With RFI on, the least bad ticket you can buy (Qatar Airways, Economy) comes out at 3,363 lbs of CO2, and the worst one (US Airways, First Class) is 15,305 lbs. That's 4.5x more! That's for the same trip, only differences are the airline and type of seat.

Don't worry, we'll give you more details on how we got these numbers and what the assumptions made to do the math were in part 2 of this series (more here for those who can't wait). Right now the point is just to show how big a difference there can be for the same trip.

Photo: Franco Folini, CC
Do I really Make a Difference?
Some skeptics might say, "Whatever ticket you buy, the plane is still going to fly, you're not making a difference!" It's the same argument as "If you don't buy that burger, it's still there, you're not really reducing meat consumption!"

The way it works is that the aggregate of everybody's choices creates demand for certain things. If 5% of people are vegetarian, demand for meat will be approximately 5% lower. If x% of people pick the most fuel-efficient flights, it will create more demand for those and fewer of the less efficient flights will be scheduled (of course the best thing still is not to fly, but if you have to, the next best thing is to pick the cleanest flight based on the best data you can find).

There's not a perfect relation between your individual choices and the impact on the environment, but that's how supply and demand works. There's inertia, but over time it adjusts to a new equilibrium.

We're not saying that two people sitting on the same plane, one in economy and one in first class, have literally different carbon footprints for that specific flight. But they are both voting with their dollars for planes with different densities of passengers, and that has an impact over the average footprint of different flight choices, just like many of our other purchases also send signals for things that are better or worse...

Photo: Flickr, CC
What About Money? Won't it Cost Me More? I Like Cheap Flights
Sometimes, but not necessarily. In fact, one of the best thing you can do is fly economy instead of first or business class. Even better is to fly in a plane that doesn't have a first class. You can fit more people in a plane when they are closer together, thus reducing the emissions per passenger. Downgrading your ticket (if you were flying first or business) will save you money, not cost you more.

Picking the most fuel efficient airline might be another matter (more on this in part 2). Sometimes the cheapest will also be the most efficient, but sometimes it won't be. We can't tell you what to do with your money. It's up to you to decide, but we want to encourage you to at least make an informed decision.

You can also see if any fuel-efficient turboprop planes are available on your route.

See also: Greener Airlines? 10 Least Environmentally Harmful Companies

Here is part 2, where we look at the top 20 most popular airline routes and what the best options are

More Green(er) Aviation Articles
7 Cool Innovations in Fuel Efficient Aviation
Aviation Biofuels Could Be Commerically Used Within 3 Years: Boeing
Poor Countries Ask for Aviation Tax to Help with Climate Adaptation
What the Heck is Radiative Forcing & Why Should My Aviation Carbon Offset Include It?

Tags: Conservation | Energy | Energy Efficiency | Transportation


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