In Light of National Aviation Day, How Can We Make Flight Greener?
We are reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn affiliate commission.
On August 19, you can celebrate National Aviation Day. Perhaps you’ll do that by taking a flight to a place you’ve always wanted to explore, making good on your goal of signing up for flight lessons or just spending time feeling thankful we have that method of transportation at our disposal.
But, despite all the conveniences and innovations traveling by plane brings, it’s not kind to the environment. So, what can we do to start changing that bit by bit?
What About Introducing a Cap System?
In some areas of the United States and Europe, carbon trading arrangements — also known as cap-and-trade systems — place restrictions on the amount of carbon emissions companies can produce. Those who want to use more than their caps allow must trade with others who won’t reach their emissions limits.
Something similar could happen for flights, and the number people take per year. Such a plan might give every person enough air miles for one long-haul flight per year or a few shorter trips. Then, if they use that allotment and want to travel by plane more, they’d have to bid for someone else’s air miles in a government-regulated marketplace.
That system would be fairer than raising the costs of airfare, which is another way to potentially make people fly less often. Some people in low-income brackets already can’t afford to fly, even if they have relatives who live on the other side of the world.
However, if everyone receives the same amount of air miles at the start of a year, the people who don’t use theirs could sell them to frequent flyers and get cash.
The Contrast Between Fuel Burned and Seats Filled
Statistics indicate the Boeing 747, a popular passenger jet, burns five gallons of fuel every mile it flies. That’s a lot, but you should realize some models of that plane can carry more than 560 people. Even if you figure such a plane only has 500 seats filled because it’s a not a sold-out flight, it’s still only burning 0.01 gallons of fuel per mile per person.
Even so, you might decide you want to avoid flying as much as possible until it becomes a greener way of traveling. In that case, take heart, because engineers are working on alternatives. You can read about some of them below and might want to spend part of National Aviation Day learning about more advancements.
Solar-Powered Airplanes Might Suffice Someday
In 2016, two pilots made history by flying around the world in a solar-powered plane. The aircraft, known as the Solar Impulse 2, had an average speed of 45 miles per hour. However, its body weighs only 2.4 tons and has 17,000 solar cells. In comparison, some planes weigh more than 600 tons.
The Solar Impulse 2 took 505 days to fly 26,000 miles. That slow pace means it’s not ready for mainstream travel yet. But, it’s a positive thing that people are looking for alternative ways to power planes. If an entirely solar-powered plane isn’t feasible, maybe ones partially fueled by the sun would lead to today’s commercial jets guzzling less gas and being kinder to the planet.
Flight Is Only One Aspect of the Journey
Even if you’re reaching a destination by plane — a method that isn’t very eco-friendly — you can still do other things to enjoy an environmentally conscious trip. Look for restaurants with menus focusing on locally sourced consumables. Instead of renting a car once you get off the plane, consider getting around on foot or borrowing a bike from a local shop.
When choosing your hotel, pick one with a commitment to sustainability. Such an establishment might have low-flow shower heads, energy-efficient light bulbs and a program in place where the housekeepers do not replace your towels daily unless you ask for it.
By actively trying to make other aspects of your trip as planet-conscious as possible, you can offset the environmental impact of flying to and from your destination.
Sustainable Jet Fuels Are Becoming More Prominent
Many airlines are experimenting with using sustainable jet fuels. They typically contain a mixture of conventional fuel, plus a greener ingredient. This trend is not new, but it’s picking up momentum. In 2008, Virgin Atlantic made history by flying a route from London to Amsterdam with an alternative fuel in one of its engines.
The International Air Travel Association recently set a goal for 1 billion passengers to travel on planes powered by sustainable aviation fuels by 2025. Its representatives say if nothing changes, half a billion people will go via that method within the timeframe.
If you want to be one of them — perhaps as your way of celebrating National Aviation Day — prioritize flying with one of the airlines already using sustainable fuels.
Lufthansa began offering daily commercial passenger flights using biofuel in 2011 on some of its Airbus planes. More recently, Qantas made a trip from Los Angeles to Melbourne, Australia, using 90 percent standard jet fuel and 10 percent mustard seed oil. Even with that small amount of alternative fuel, the airline estimates it reduced carbon emissions by seven percent.
Beyond sustainable fuel, NASA is funding efforts for electric planes, design changes and more. Some of those efforts are long shots, though.
You Have the Power to Increase Eco-Friendliness on Flights
Even if you can’t fly with one of the airlines using alternative fuels, don’t despair. Simple things make a difference in greening your flight experience. You can use an electronic boarding pass instead of printing one out. Also, nonstop flights use less fuel than those that have layovers. If you have the option, choose the newest plane possible.
It’ll be a while before air travel providers aren’t primarily reliant on fossil fuels. Fortunately, advancements are happening, and you can make a difference, too.
About the author
Jane Marsh is the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co. She covers topics related to climate policy, sustainability, renewable energy and more.