How Airlines Can Become Eco-Friendly
When it comes to the airline industry, it is definitely not easy being green. By its very nature, jet aviation is extremely hard on the environment. Every commercial airplane you see taxiing around the airport spends an average of 8–14 hours airborne every day of its service life. Depending on the airline, the average service life of an aircraft is about 20 years. Jet aircraft burn enormous quantities of carbon-producing fossil fuel (although modern high-bypass jet engines burn significantly less fuel than earlier turbojet models)
Idiling and trailing
Think about all of those times you’ve sat there impatiently, waiting for takeoff—then imagine how often this happens all over the world. Some airports regularly experience waits of up to an hour for planes to take off, and most aircraft have many, if not all, of their engines idling during that time. Not only are these long ground times hard on the environment, but they’re also expensive. Then, to make matters worse, the majority of the engines’ exhaust is deposited where aircraft spend most of their time: at high altitudes.
We have all seen those trails of white clouds (called contrails) left behind by the engines of aircraft operating at high altitude. The contrails deposit moisture into the atmosphere and are created by the hot exhaust gasses as they rapidly cool. This moisture turns into ice crystals and is thought to trap more of the earth’s heat from escaping into the upper atmosphere. To tackle this contrail problem, testing work is being done to increase the efficiency of jet engines at lower altitudes. If aircraft were outfitted with such engines, pilots wouldn’t have to fly at the higher altitudes where contrails are produced. Unfortunately, there are also other considerations, such as weather at the lower altitudes where aircraft are more affected by turbulence.
The airline industry releases an incredible amount of carbon into the atmosphere on a daily basis. Annually, this figure amounts to more than 500 million tons of CO 2, which represents 2–3 percent of the world’s total carbon emissions. Those emissions are growing rapidly as emerging economies expand and modernize across the globe, offering travel to greater numbers of their citizens. In addition, take a look at all the ground support vehicles and the associated infrastructure needed to support the airline and its operation. Rarely will you find an electric ground support vehicle—most are powered by gasoline, diesel, natural gas or some other type of fossil fuel.
Dirty airplanes contribute to the pollution problem as well, but not in the ways you might imagine. Some airlines don’t do very well at keeping the exteriors of their aircraft clean, especially the belly area, where large amounts of grease and dirt accumulate. This buildup increases the skin friction underneath the aircraft, so more power (fuel burn) is needed to propel the airplane through the air. Imagine the problem as akin to having the hull of a ship covered in barnacles. Imagine how much harder the engines would have to work to push that ship through the water. While this may seem insignificant on an individual aircraft basis, multiply it by the thousands of airplanes flying each day, and the scope of the problem becomes clear.
From a pilot’s perspective, we have very little control over lessening the impact our industry has on the environment. We can do small things, such as reducing APU (auxiliary power unit) usage while at the gate and taxiing out with fewer engines running, if possible. But our goal is to provide our passengers with a comfortable experience from the moment they enter the aircraft to the moment they step off. Occasionally, the ground crew will forget to connect the external air-conditioning or the units will be broken, and we have to start the APU early to cool the cabin. While the APU doesn’t burn as much as one of the main aircraft engines, it is still a carbon-producing entity.
Industry inefficiencies that have been largely ignored in the past are now being reevaluated in an effort to become more environmentally friendly. Some airlines are taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint with such cutting-edge ideas as laminar flow, blended aerodynamic engineering and the use of composite materials. Most airlines have or are planning to install winglets on their Boeing 737 and 757 fleets, which increases fuel efficiency by about 5 percent. Composite materials are often much stronger than steel and aluminum and weigh considerably less, and a lighter airplane burns less fuel. One airline even has the goal of using alternative sources of fuel derived from sustainable plant sources or algae, then mixing it with existing aviation fuel.
Most airlines still issue updates to their pilot’s aviation publications in paper form, but many in the corporate aviation world download the updates electronically to their laptop computers. The amount of paper wasted every year through the needless issuance of paper approach plates (approach diagrams and airport layouts) and charts twice a month is mind-boggling. Here’s a better idea: Why not install two sets of publications onboard each aircraft, instead of having every pilot carry a set? (There are usually 10–20 pilots for every aircraft in the fleet.) The benefit would be twofold, saving the backs of pilots who lug those heavy flight bags and saving many trees at the same time.
Carbon offsets are another idea making their slow way through the pipeline. The offsets are voluntary surcharges purchased by any traveling individual and applied to environmentally friendly green projects. For example, let’s say you’re scheduled to fly from London to Los Angeles and determine that your carbon footprint is X. X is then converted to a monetary value and automatically directed to a beneficiary project that will use the money for a “green” undertaking. Projects include reforestation, energy efficiency ventures and renewable energy development. One drawback, however, is making sure that the money actually gets to the proper green enterprise and is spent on its intended beneficiary.
There are ways to save money and our environment simultaneously, but they require forethought and an initial financial commitment with an eye toward future savings. In an industry where consistent profits are rare and oil prices often rise, our priorities have to change if we’re ever going to escape from our established habits and prepare ourselves for a sustainable future.
A few little things I do routinely when traveling:
• Carry small containers of shampoo that I refill at home.
• Take short showers and use only one towel. If I am staying more than one night at a hotel, I’ll ask that the sheets not be changed each day.
• Take a water bottle I’ve previously used and refill it with tap (safe locations only) water for gym use.
• Try not to leave lights on if I’m leaving the room to save electricity.
CHRIS COOKE is a pilot with a major domestic carrier. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.