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.

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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.

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