Startup airline Porter Air flies Bombardier Q400 turboprops from Toronto to Ottawa and Montreal, evidently with some style, having its interiors, graphics and uniforms designed by *Walllpaper founder Tyler Brûlé's Winkreative. It appears to be quite a nice way to travel-leather seats, free wine and food. Many Torontonians wish it would go away, having bought condos overlooking the island airport and being surprised to find that planes are using it. My first reaction was that in this"flying is dying" era, perhaps Porter was a misguided venture. Then I started looking at the numbers.
When you look at the statistics for "energy intensity of passenger travel modes" and compare BTU's per passenger mile travelled, remarkable numbers pop up. George Monbiot makes a big case for the return of bus lines, and makes a valid point- they are efficient. US department of transportation, from worst to first:
Car other than normal passenger car (SUVs) 4509 btu per passenger-mile
Transit Motor bus 4147
international flights 4126
domestic flights 4049
passenger car 3589
amtrak (high speed modern train) 2134
Intercity bus 1286 (correction from earlier version of this post)
Monbiot will also point out that even if different modes use the same amount of fuel, flying is far worse because it exhausts CO2 and water vapour into the stratosphere where it is far more effective as an agent for global warming. (Great interview of George on CBC here)
Then let's look at the Porter Air model. It is a short hop to the airport; I can take the bus or bicycle there because it is downtown. They fly new Bombardier Q400 turboprops, which use 64% of the fuel per passenger mile that jets do. Apply that to the BTU's for domestic flights and we are at 2591 BTU's per passenger mile, less than a car and just slightly above a modern train. (efficiency is slightly less on longer flights)
And being turboprops, their ceiling is half of that of a jet- they do not fly in the stratosphere.
Follow up with another of Monbiot's points about flying, namely that there is no viable substitute fuel, we might point out that turboprops are
piston engines turbines and could probably fly on biofuels.
We note that British airline Flybe makes the case that its Q400's are environmentally good choices- "We accept that we have a responsibility as one of Europe’s leading low cost airlines to reduce the carbon emissions produced by our aircraft.....The latest aircraft flying today often match the fuel consumption of modern passenger cars and in some cases – depending on speed and distance – even of high-speed trains."
I love George Monbiot and every word of his book Heat. But perhaps flying isn't dying, just flying the way we do now is. Fifty years ago, a flight to Europe from New York meant a stop in Gander, Reykjavik and Shannon- it was slow, it was low, but you got there in a day. For domestic or European flying, it seems completely obvious. Perhaps we need more Porter Air type airlines. Perhaps we don't need to stop flying, we just have to slow down and enjoy the trip.