Buy economy class direct flights and pack lightly as much as possible. Fly on airlines that optimize for economy class seating like Southwest Airlines.
As COVID vaccines get broadly distributed and people unleash their pent up travel demand, it's time to talk about airlines. And they're not all created equal - who you fly with and how you fly can lower the impact of your air travel by as much as 25%!
An undeserved bad rap
While airlines get a bad rap for the amount of fuel they burn, they were the most emissions efficient way to get around on a per passenger per mile basis before electric cars. Unfortunately, airplanes also make you travel more distance than you otherwise would (how often would you drive across the country if you couldn't fly?) causing more total emissions.
The main reason that airlines get so much attention for emissions is that it's easy to imagine how much fuel they're burning, we're not sure how we're going to make airlines emissions free (we have similar problems with cement, which has 2x the world wide emissions of airlines today), and because airline travel is becoming more and more popular.
The good news is that airlines only make up 2-3% of total emissions today so we have a lot of other areas we need to tackle first before we worry too much about airlines. In the mean time, lots of technology from better batteries (1) to carbon free fuel (2) has time to mature that can reduce the total impact of airlines.
Nevertheless, optimizing emissions from air travel is a good way for you to reduce your personal emissions since flights make up 10-25% of middle-class American footprints making it one of the top three categories you can do something about.
Not all created equal
All airlines are incentivized to be fuel efficient because fuel makes up 20-30% of their operating expenses but other aspects of the business significantly impact the emissions created per passenger. Fuel use in an aircraft is primarily a function of weight but surprisingly the weight of the passenger isn't what impacts total fuel use. Other decisions like how many times you take off and land to get to your final destination, how much baggage you bring and how much space each passenger is given have a much larger impact on total fuel burned to get you from A to B.
So which airlines are best? In short, the larger the economy class and the less free stuff you get the better it is. Budget airlines like Frontier and Southwest top the charts because they lower fares by putting as many passengers in a plane as possible. That means no bulky first class seats and more passengers to share the emissions caused by the weight of the plane, taxiing, takeoff, and landing.
Cheaper airlines often take this one step further by encouraging you to bring less by charging for everything from food and drinks on board to even carry-on luggage making sure you're only using exactly what you want.
Other things you can do
- Fly direct, especially for shorter flights. Take off, landing, and taxiing can contribute as much as 40% of a flights emissions on a per distance basis before accounting for the total extra distance travelled. (Source: ICCT CO2 Emissions from Commercial Aviation)
- Fly economy class - first class seating even on efficient airlines causes 2-4x as much emissions. (Source: ICCT CO2 Emissions from Commercial Aviation)
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1. Comments on Better Batteries
30 years ago it was laughable to think of an electric car as a reasonable solution when thinking about your car or laptop battery. Now with electric cars driving significant research and development into batteries than ever before, it's more likely that we'll find ways to electrify aircraft as well. In fact, it's already happening with hybrid airplanes in development for very small hobbyist aircraft (think Cessna's).
2. About Carbon Free Fuel
Small amounts of fuel can be made carbon free by using carbon dioxide to pump oil out of the ground. The carbon dioxide gets trapped in the rock where the oil was effectively trapping carbon in the bedrock. If that CO2 came from the atmosphere - then the fuel is carbon neutral. Lots of people want to use injecting CO2 into the bedrock as a way to remove legacy emissions thus offsetting other industries. The biggest problem with this is it's expensive at the moment. Trapping one gallon of gas's worth of CO2 in rock costs $10 and we can't do very much of it at the moment.