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.

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18 Comments on "Airlines and the Environment"

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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… Read more »

“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?

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… Read more »
bryan in san francisco
bryan in san francisco

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.

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… Read more »

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.


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.

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… Read more »
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… Read more »
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… Read more »
Have to disagree here. Good statistics are hard to find but this article approximates it: 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… Read more »
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… Read more »
Number 23
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… Read more »
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… Read more »

[…] So that’s not a change. Again, it’s mostly just bundling it up for PR purposes, and as I said a couple weeks ago, that’s smart for them to be proactive here. But for you, well, you might be able to win a […]


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.


We need both.