Getting somewhere by airplane used to be a luxury. Now many of us wouldn’t know life without it. As air travel gets more and more popular, there’s been more concern about the environmental impacts of our flying habits. Rebecca Williams takes a look at what’s happening in the skies:
Getting somewhere by airplane used to be a luxury. Now many of us
wouldn’t know life without it. As air travel gets more and more
popular, there’s been more concern about the environmental impacts of
our flying habits. Rebecca Williams takes a look at what’s happening
in the skies:
Air travel still takes a backseat to car travel as a way to get around.
But it’s growing by about 5 percent a year. There are more low cost
carriers these days, and plane tickets are cheaper, in real dollars,
than they used to be.
Airplanes have gotten a lot more efficient, but they’re not off the
hook, either. They burn fossil fuels, so they emit carbon dioxide.
CO2 is almost universally agreed to be the main culprit of global
Planes are responsible for about 3% of man-made CO2 emissions.
Compared to cars and coal-burning power plants, that looks like a
pretty small percentage.
But there’s something else unique to planes that has scientists
Gidon Eshel is a climate scientist at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. He
says planes also emit nitrous oxide and water vapor. That’s the
contrail you see. Both of those gasses can trap heat in Earth’s
“The emissions associated with aviation are very important – roughly
twice as important as CO2 alone because they occur in such high reaches
of the atmosphere.”
Eshel says the effects of nitrous oxide and water vapor are stronger
than when they’re released near the ground.
There’s not much planes can do about flying so high up. But the
airline industry says it’s hard at work to make its planes more fuel
Bill Glover directs environmental strategy for Boeing Commercial
“The distance we could fly on a gallon of gas 50 years ago, we can now
do on less than a quart of gas. What we have ahead of us is more
improvements in materials, engines, aerodynamics, all of those are
going to contribute to fuel efficiency.”
Both Boeing and Airbus have unveiled shiny new planes that get more
miles to the gallon. So airlines should rush out and get the latest
Well, it’s not that simple.
For starters, there’s the price tag: anywhere from about 14 million all
the way up to 300 million dollars.
Gueric Dechavanne is an airline industry analyst with OAGback Aviation
Solutions. He says it’s definitely in the airlines’ best interest to
upgrade their fleets. He says the cost of fuel has risen dramatically
over the past couple of years. But Dechavanne says even if airlines
can afford the newest model, it’ll be a long time before they can get
“It’s not as easy as placing the order and getting the airplane today.
From the standpoint of the 787, the latest and greatest, 2014 or 2015
is the earliest delivery you can get it if you place an order today.”
Generally, the younger the airline company, the more fuel efficient
their fleet will be. Dechavanne says that means newer low cost
carriers such as JetBlue, Skybus and Spirit have the newest planes.
He says the so-called legacy airlines – such as Northwest and American
Airlines – have older fleets because they’ve been around for a while.
They have a much harder time upgrading their fleets. Dechavanne says
airlines don’t want to retire a plane before they’ve squeezed a full
life out of it:
“For the majority of U.S. carriers the fleet is still fairly young;
it’s tough for them to replace all of the inefficient airplanes just
because of the fact that fuel has gotten out of control.”
Dechavanne says, instead, some carriers are looking at less expensive
fixes – such as adding winglets to the plane to make it more
The experts have advice for travelers, too: Try to avoid connecting
Climate scientist Gidon Eshel says direct flights are better than
flights with several stops. And although it sounds counterintuitive,
it’s more efficient to take one really long flight a year than a bunch
of shorter flights.
That’s because airplanes have an ideal cruising height – about 30,000
“To get there they need to climb a whole lot which makes short flights
relatively inefficient, sometimes very inefficient compared to long
Another thing the experts recommend is lightening the load: pack light
and leave the hardcover books at home.
And as much as we all hate jam-packed planes, putting a lot of people
on one flight is actually better for the environment than having extra
For the Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.