Our Guide to Sustainable Air Travel

Making your Vacation or Business Trip More Eco-Friendly

Plane sitting on the tarmac

Air travel may not have the same romantic attraction that it once did, but our love affair with fast, convenient ways to get from one region of the planet to the other has pushed the airline industry to grow by leaps and bounds throughout the most recent decades, despite things like 9/11 and a slow economy. Though only a small proportion of adults worldwide have ever stepped foot on a plane, air travel is quite common for people in developed nations. We love the jet set life. But what kind of impact is it having on the planet? And is there anything you can do to make a difference without giving up your love of travel?


Aviation and climate change

Not surprisingly, climate change is the environmental topic getting the most attention in the world of aviation. According to a report published by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the airline industry is responsible for a total of 4.9% of all human-caused climate impacts worldwide, including the emission of greenhouse gases such as CO2, O3, CH4, NOx, H2O vapour, contrails, SO4 and soot.[1]

Though some have argued that road vehicles are more of a concern than airplanes because they produce three times as much carbon dioxide emissions, specialists in the area of aviation greenhouse gas emissions disagree. True, aviation CO2 emissions are smaller now, but they’re growing faster—3.6% annually versus 0.6% annually for vehicle emissions. Additionally the emissions produced by airlines, and the location where they are emitted (higher altitudes) has a far bigger impact on the environment. Estimates put aviation’s impact on climate change surpassing that of ground vehicles in 20 years or less.[2]

Sadly, the pace of green change in the airline industry has been slow,[3] but the good news is that you as a consumer can make a difference by adjusting your air travel preferences and habits! Flying less often is certainly a very green option—“staycations” are great, but by taking the train or traveling by bus you can also reduce your impact on climate change. But more than that, you can do things like buy carbon offsets, travel lighter, select a greener airline, and choose economy over first class to cut your personal impact.


Carbon offsets

When flights are the only travel option available to you, look into purchasing carbon offsets. These are credits you own that ensure projects that mitigate climate change and reduce the production of greenhouse gas emissions are being completed. They’re a symbolic way for you to balance out the emissions you produce by flying with emissions-canceling actions taking place elsewhere on the planet. Read on to find out more about what carbon emissions are, how to calculate your carbon footprint, what to look for in quality carbon offsets, and which companies you can trust to deliver on the green promises they make.


Greener airlines

While it’s important to reduce the impact of your unavoidable flights by purchasing carbon offsets, you can do even more by flying with airlines that are more committed to reducing their impact. Though the green airline playing field can be a bit confusing at times, by spending your consumer dollars with your green convictions, you’ll be sending a strong message to the airline industry that you want them to make a difference by changing how they operate. We’ll give you all the details on how to find better airlines that are making eco-friendly policies part of their everyday options.


Personal choices for a smaller flight footprint

Airlines aren’t the only ones responsible for making an impact on the environment. You, too, make choices every time you pack your bags that affect how much fuel will be used during your flight. You can make greener air travel choices by doing things like flying economy and packing lighter in an effort to cut your load on the airplane and thereby reduce the overall fuel required to get you from point A to point B. Check out our tips for flying green


Getting to the airport on less fuel

On flight day, you can do more to cut your trip’s impact by finding a way to get to the airport that’s less carbon intense than driving your own car. From public transportation to car sharing programs to hiring a green cab, our guide to greener ways to get to the airport will help you find a way that works for you without taxing the planet.


Airline waste and recycling

But climate change isn’t the only environmental problem shadowing the airline industry. Most onboard recycling programs lack structure and consistent implementation, resulting in some rather dismal results. Green America recently published a report in which they reported their evaluation of the biggest airlines in the US (and some international ones, too) in terms of their waste production and recycling efforts. They found that although most airlines acknowledge the importance of strong recycling programs, only 20% of all flight-related waste gets recycled every year, estimating that at least 500 million tons are sent to landfills unnecessarily.[4]


But there are many things you as an average airline passenger can do not only to minimize your personal environmental impact while on the road, but also to push the airline industry in the direction of more sustainable business practices. From packing your own lunch to recycling the waste you generate while on the plane, your choices before, during, and after do make a difference. And making your voice heard,[5] especially if you’re a frequent flyer, is also important so that airlines know of your wishes to see them be more responsible for their waste. Dig deeper in our green air travel section to find out additional actions you can take to reduce your pre-flight, in-flight, and post-flight waste.



1 Aircraft energy efficiency has not improved in a decade. (2009, December 16). Retrieved March 28, 2010, from Transport & Environment: http://www.transportenvironment.org/News/2009/12/Aircraft-energy-efficiency-has-not-improved-in-a-decade/

2 Are car emissions more important than aircraft emissions?(2009, March 20). Retrieved March 28, 2010, from Aviation Environment Federation: http://www.aef.org.uk/?p=319

3 Aviation now contributes 4.9% of climate change worldwide. (2009, May 21). Retrieved March 28, 2010, from Aviation Environment Federation: http://www.aef.org.uk/?p=479

4 What Goes Up Must Come Down: The Sorry State of Recycling in the Airline Industry. (2010, February). Retrieved March 28, 2010, from Green America: http://www.greenamericatoday.org/PDF/AirlineRecyclingReport.pdf

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