How to Make Air Travel (A Bit) Less Damaging

CC BY 2.0. Moto Miwa

We know it's bad, but people still do it, which is why we still need to talk about it.

Whenever we write about travel on TreeHugger, inevitably there are readers who dislike that we're talking about air travel at all. They see it as a legitimization of something we shouldn't be doing, but I think dismissing air travel entirely is unrealistic in this day and age. People fly for many different reasons, justifiable or not, and striving to do it in a less invasive, more eco-friendly manner is always a good idea.

That being said, an awareness of its impact is crucial among travellers. The International Council on Clean Transportation says that taking one roundtrip flight abroad generates one metric ton of carbon, which is roughly equivalent to driving a Prius 20 miles (35 km) to work every day for a year. We should all try to fly less and stay for longer when we go, but there are things everyone can do to lessen the impact.

1. Do you really have to fly?

The question needs to be asked: is it necessary to take that plane? Trains are a wonderfully eco-friendly way to get around, especially in Europe, where the rail system is well-organized and far-reaching. In North America, planning a train trip can become a focal point of the journey.

2. Choose the most fuel-efficient airline.

A 2106 study on airlines' fuel efficiency revealed a huge discrepancy between carriers when it comes to how much fuel they burn. This is caused by two main differences -- the number of premium seats (these take up more room) and the type of aircraft. In the U.S. Alaska Airlines is the most fuel efficient, followed by Frontier and Spirit, while Virgin America was the least efficient. In Europe, Norwegian Airlines is 51 percent more efficient than British Airways, the worst ranking. In Canada and the U.S., Porter Airlines uses turboprop planes that fly much lower than jets and use 64 percent of the fuel that jets do.

3. Sit in economy.

In his excellent book, Being the Change, atmospheric scientist Peter Kalmus calculates that sitting in first class emits 1.5 kg C02-equivalents per passenger mile, compared to 0.5 kg CO2e in economy. A 2009 study by World Bank calculated that first class seats have a carbon footprint up to 9 times bigger than their economy counterparts (via Smithsonian). Needless to say, you should feel good about being squished next time.

4. Buy carbon offsets.

It's a Band-Aid solution, but it's better than nothing. You can add these voluntarily to some airline tickets at the time of purchase; think of it as an upgrade the removes an equivalent amount of carbon from the environment. Learn more about how carbon offsets are used here. (Peter Kalmus disagrees with this notion. One of his arguments is that a company cannot guarantee a planted tree will be left undisturbed for centuries. Read more in his book, Being the Change.)

5. Pick a daytime flight.

It's believed that flying during the daytime is more eco-friendly because an airplane's contrails -- the plumes of exhaust that can be seen behind a plane -- reflect some sunlight away from the Earth. Nighttime flights have a greater warming impact because, as the David Suzuki Foundation explains, the contrails trap heat that would otherwise escape the Earth.

6. Take a non-stop flight.

As much as 50 percent of a flight's emissions come from takeoff and landing, not to mention the fuel burned while taxing around and waiting for a runway, so the more you can reduce that, the better.

7. Pack as lightly as possible.

Not only does it make traveling far easier, faster, and more pleasant, it reduces the total weight on an airplane, which means it burns less fuel.