Airlines and the Environment

I started putting this post on the airlines and the environment together a long time ago, and then it fell by the wayside. I dusted it off this weekend, and fortunately it’s still relevant. In fact, it’s only going to continue to become a bigger and bigger issue as time goes by.

I was prompted to write this post when I saw that the green community was up in arms over an incident involving American awhile back. You probably remember this one. The airline had the “audacity” to fly an airplane from Chicago to London with, *gasp*, 5 passengers onboard. Why? Well, they had canceled the flight but they couldn’t reaccommodate everyone on the other flights. There were 5 people left over. They had to fly the plane over to London to pick up the people flying westbound anyway, so they let those 5 people onboard for the trip east. That would have been called good customer service back in the day, but now many will call it a crime against the environment. It’s amazing how quickly times change.

08_03_06 globalwarming

I think this incident makes it pretty clear that airlines need to be paying very close attention to their impact on the environment. Even if you don’t believe in global warming, you have to understand that this issue is going to continue to snowball from a PR perspective and it will likely result in higher taxes on airline tickets if the airline don’t pay attention. You need to look no further than the actions over in Europe to see what’s undoubtedly going to make its way stateside with increasing volume. Over there, they’re talking about carbon trading schemes and insanely high taxes. It won’t be much longer before it reaches a fever pitch over here as well.

Now, I do believe that there is a human impact on climate change, but I also think the airlines are going to bear far more of the burden than they should. Air travel accounts for somewhere between 2 and 3% of greenhouse gas emissions and probably a slightly larger percentage of overall global warming. That’s a pretty small number in the scheme of things, but that’s not going to be a good argument in the public eye. But even looking within that 2 to 3%, why is it the airlines and not other contributors to the aviation industry get hit the hardest?

Well, they’re the easiest ones to nail. The problem here for the airlines, of course, is that they can’t pass along all these additional costs to consumers, and for environmentalists, that’s probably the point. The green people want fewer flights, but that’s a very bad idea if you care about the economy. We’re having a hard enough time keeping flying affordable in this country with the cost of fuel right now. Additional taxes on air travel are going to be detrimental. How else can this issue be addressed?

It seems to me that the best place to focus efforts here is on the manufacturers. I know, I know. Indirectly, anything that happens to the airlines will force the manufacturers to be more green, because the airlines will demand it. But with US airlines conserving cash and not looking at new aircraft orders, pressure from the airlines on the manufacturers won’t result in much change for a long time.

By going after the airlines directly and taxing them further, you’re bound to hurt the environment even more. In Europe, you have greener options. You can take a train instead of flying, but in the US that’s rarely an option. So, as costs rise, people will just head to their cars more. Even with the price of gas where it is, if you lump more taxes on top of an airline ticket, it’s going to be less economically feasible to fly and people will drive. Cars are way worse for the environment than flying an airplane over the same distance.

So instead, let’s focus on the manufacturers. If we want to truly be green, we should be offering tax breaks and R&D funding to help create greener aircraft, and that really begins with the engine manufacturers in particular. That’s where I think the gains can be made. Let’s fund alternative fuel and fuel conservation research. That’s how we can really have the greatest impact.


18 Responses to Airlines and the Environment

  1. Chris says:

    Sorry Brett but i have to whole heartedly disagree. Forcing the manufacturer to provide ‘greener’ options will not work for the same reasons CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) has failed for the automotive industry. When the Govt implemented the CAFE standards the idea was that if MFG’s produce more fuel efficient cars consumers would buy them. What happened was exactly the opposite. The industry in the US shifted to larger gas guzzling SUV’s and trucks, that for a long time were exempt from CAFE’s rules.

    If you look at the history of car buying in the US the times where ‘greener’ more fuel efficient cars were being sold is times when fuel prices soared. 70’s fuel crises, Gulf War Part I, Katrina, and again today. All of those times had higher then normal gas prices, so as a result the end consumer demanded fuel efficient cars.

    Europe has figured this out a long time ago. They tax their gas so heavily that its roughly $9.00 a gallon (as of last week), and $4.00 a gallon was normal for them years ago. The result is cars sold in Europe are more fuel efficient then those sold here, and the taxes go to better maintained roads and proper public transport.

    Whats this have to do with airliners well if people really want the airlines to cut their ‘carbon foot print’ then they have demand it using their wallets. And this is part of the reason of the HUGE success of the the 787. People want cheap flights and the only way for that to happen is to cut operating costs and fuel is a big one.

    Uhh sorry for the long rant if you really read the whole thing treat yourself to a cookie from the kitchen.

  2. Jori says:

    “Cars are way worse for the environment than flying an airplane over the same distance.”

    I fly frequently, and have wondered what the carbon/environmental impact is per mile flown vs. per mile driven. Have you come across any statistics on that issue?

  3. Gareth says:

    I’d like to see some statistics, Brett, that back up your suggestion that the solution is to put the burden on airplane manufacturers instead of on the passengers and airlines. I agree with you that North America needs more high-speed rail between major cities — like you I’m a train buff as well as a plane buff. There are a half-dozen high-density corridors where that would work. But we also need to incorporate the environmental costs of our travel into our ticket prices. If that means fewer people travel, if business people meet electronically more often or vacationers choose shorter distances, then that’s good and will stimulate the economy in different ways. The manufacturers were working on fuel-efficient and quiet long-distance propeller aircraft but abandoned that because the airlines were reluctant. That was a terrible mistake. The success of the quiet Bombadier Q-400 suggests that props should be re-considered for transcontinental and intercontinental flights — I wonder how fast new prop planes could be brought online?

  4. bryan in san francisco says:

    Some good points, CF.

    And cars are not just worse because of emissions, but also because of the extremely unprofitable highway infrastructure, all the blight from providing parking spaces, and the congestion they cause at destinations.

    A little tidbit: At the Eindhoven airport you can offset your flight at a touch-screen machine just past security. Not that offsets are all that great, but it’s an option.

  5. Artie says:

    Couple points:

    1. Taxing consumers further for flight costs, when we are already wary to purchase tickets will do EXACTLY what CF proposes – drive more people to, well, drive. This is losing situation all around as others have stated.

    2. Chris – while I see your point on some issues, I think your argument fails to recognize that almost all of Europe has amazing public transportation available to the public. There are very few metropolis in Europe where you can’t get around without a car. That is NOT true for the United States where cars reign supreme. In my opinion, it is because of the lack of good public transportation options in the majority of the States that you still see people using their cars even though gas prices have risen sharply. In fact, some of the only cities where car use has dropped slightly are the cities that offer public transportation like New York and San Francisco (anybody else see a link here?) So I would argue that before you price people out of driving their cars with outrageous tax hikes, you better offer them a convenient option, or else, as CF points out, your economy will slide even lower.

  6. darren says:

    I think we need to impose a luxury tax on fuel for corporate/private jets, which have a much higher carbon footprint per passenger mile traveled than commercial planes.

  7. CF says:

    Chris – I agree that there has to be demand for these aircraft for it to make sense, but I don’t think there’s any question there would be demand. It’s the high cost of development that is going to make these things hard to achieve. So, if we can find a way to pay for development, they will come to market much more quickly.

    Jori – I have been told that the cost per mile in an airplane is about the same as the cost per mile in a Prius. This comes from someone I trust, but I do not have any proof nor citation of this.

    Gareth – I’m not sure that I can provide you with any statistics on this because I don’t have proof of how this works. I don’t think it’s been done. Air travel is taxed quite heavily already, and it does not need to be burdened with yet another tax. As for props for long hauls, there is too much of a speed and altitude issue for that to be successful. The Q400 can only cruise at Mach .58 while most commercial jets are in the high 70s or low 80s. The plane also has a max altitude of 25,000, something that won’t get you above the weather all the time. So, there needs to be new innovation. Whether that is an unducted fan (which kind of looks like a prop), a geared turbofan, or something else, I’m not sure. But that’s where the funding needs to go.

  8. Dan Webb says:

    I have to agree with Brett here. I definitely think the airlines are getting too much to blame here. What angers me further is that the environmental movement has no solution to propose other than “don’t fly.”

    But I will agree with other commenters that change in this department will mainly happen when economically necessary – which is already happening. But I think increased taxes are definitely not the way to go here.

  9. Daren S says:

    Here in Europe, even with relatively good public transport infrastructure, flying is still essential for business and leisure trips. Yes London to Paris is still viable by train, in fact it’s quicker, but many other European cities just can’t be reached quick enough by high speed trains and thus flying is the only option. And for those not living in capital city locations, Europe is very similar to the US. The fact is that oil has been a pretty cheap commodity for a very long time, only in the last year or so has the price been going through the roof. This clearly focuses the issue of cutting out any inefficiency and therefore benefitting the environment. The problem is that all these new technologies take such a long time to filter through. New planes take years to come to market and new materials and engines even longer. In the meantime we will see airlines grounding their most inefficient aircraft as BA has hinted at. Maybe greater co-operation between airlines will bring both economic and environmental benefits by ensuring planes leave full making the industry more fuel efficient in these tougher market conditions.

  10. DRG says:

    Comparing what happened in the auto industry to the aircraft manufacturing sector is a bit silly, me thinks. Automobiles are a consumer product. Aircraft are primarily sold to corporations — corporations for which fuel is now becoming one of their top costs. The dynamics of what goes into an aircraft purchase are very different. There was a time when more fuel efficient models were being promoted, like the propofan powered Boeing 7J7, but these are extremely different times.

    In terms of perception, sure there is a huge problem. But in terms of actual progress on this issue, I do not believe there is. Both airlines and the manufacturers who build for them already have plenty of incentive to create more fuel efficient aircraft. And aircraft today already are 70% more fuel efficient than the aircraft of 50 years ago. USA Today recently reported that during 2001-2006, aircraft emissions were down 13% — despite an increase in traffic during that time period.

    The big problem is perception. Certainly airlines in North America (and other stakeholders) do need to step up a bit on that.

  11. Brandon says:

    Amen Cranky,

    I couldn’t agree with you more. For the record, I am not an environmentalist, I work in the financial sector and both my business and personal consumption decisions are driven by the bottom line. That being said I do my part by recycling and where economicically viable I make ecologically sensitive choices but I refuse to pay more for that choice. I.e if the grocery store gives free plastic bags, I wont pay for a reusable bag. I do however reuse the plastic bags.

    While I think it is a noble move by the airlines to offer voluntary participation in carbon ofset programs I fear the reality of it becoming a manditory “tax”. An aircraft will fly whether I am on it or not and my flying on any particular day will not contirute any more or less to the decline of the environment. Cranly, you are 110% right that it is not the responsibilty of the airline or the passenger to shoulder the costs of environmental impact of their current fleet of aircraft. They just bought the best equipment that was available. Greening should start with the manufacturer and they should be encouraged to design green with various incentives.

    On a related note, I am noticing that car rental companies are starting to offer a voluntary carbon ofset charge – why???

  12. Mark says:

    Have to disagree here. Good statistics are hard to find but this article approximates it:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuel_efficiency_in_transportation

    Basically, the fuel usage in liters per passenger mile is similar for fully-loaded planes as for fully-loaded cars, but when you look at how much less efficient kerosene is than diesel or (non-ethanol-mixed) gasoline, and the fact that so many passenger miles are on regional jets and inefficient old planes, I’d bet the plane stats are overly optimistic.

    Of course, the one solution you recognise but fail to expand upon here is to improve the rail networks in America and Asia, and start seeing air travel as a long-haul-only sport. This would reduce the reliance on highly inefficient regional jets, not to mention cars.

  13. A says:

    About the cost per mile difference when comparing air vs. auto I alway look at the bottom line. On a recent flight I figured straight ticket price vs. gasoline cost at 25mpg. The pump price would have to be over $10/gallon to make the airfare cheaper…and we all know if gasoline was that much the airfares would be much higher. It’s an evaluation of how much my time is worth, what dining & lodging will cost while on the road. What a rental car would cost if flying, etc. More often than not, if time isn’t a concern, driving is cheaper. Add the cost of a 2nd ticket/passenger and driving is almost a no brainer it’s so much cheaper. That said, it’s tough to find the time with busy work/family schedules…and I’m not driving to Europe or Asia very easily.

    I do find it ridiculous that people fly short “commuter” routes like LAX to SFO when a European or Japanese style high speed train could accomplish the task more efficiently and probably faster given modern airport delays. For anything under 1000 miles I’d prefer the train given my experiences across the pond.

  14. Number 23 says:

    CF –

    You are right it would be unfair to raise taxes on the airlines directly and just shifting people into cars isn’t an answer. What we need to do is raise taxes on all forms of fuel and/or emissions, sort of a carbon tax. This way consumers will shift their choices towards the method of transportation that is best for the environment because it will also be better for their wallets, or choose alternatives like electronic meetings where possible. In the meantime, we must earmark those additional taxes to go to investments in improving alternative energy. Other than a few left-wing radicals, the masses won’t choose a transportation method purely on environmental reasons, we must make it a financially attractive option to be aligned with sustainability. This will also lead us towards a path of more energy independence, but that is a topic for a different blog.

    BTW – Higher fuel taxes will hurt the economy but our economy is too strong for it to have dire consequences like some people are proposing. Europe seems to be doing just fine with fuel prices that have been double our prices for decades.

  15. Ari says:

    It is misleading to say that switching into cars will become more polluting. People will probably start thinking differently about the need to travel and not do it tall.

    Part of why flying is so polluting (relatively) is that growth is so big due to convenience and low price. If you price most of this use out of people, then they will think twice about being there at all and figure out alternatives like teleportation (I’m kidding). I am sure London-Barcelona daily commutes might become a thing of the past then.

    The root of the problem with transportation is that we subsidize so much of the wrong transportation infrastructure (airports, roads, ATC) and not enough of the right one such as rail.

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  17. Chris says:

    I think no matter which way you look at it, both cars and airplanes are not the best for the environment. But the thing is, people still need to get from point A to B so until a form of transportation is encouraged in the US that produces less gases we really have no other options.

  18. tom says:

    We need both.

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