Earth Day: Traveling more eco-friendly

Each day, thousands of people travel the globe. Many think about their mileage per gallon on their cars before they buy one, or how much the cost of gasoline hits their bottom line. But when you last travelled by air, did you consider your environmental impact? If you need to go from one end of the country to the other in a day, you don’t have much of a choice in how to get there – you’re probably going to fly. But when you do fly, there are ways to lessen the impact your travels have on the environment.

That said, it becomes a sticky issue of how you personally can best benefit our atmosphere when flying. After all, if you yourself don’t fly tomorrow, it’s more than likely that any given airplane is going to fly anyways – it’s not like your personally-owned vehicle where if you don’t drive, you don’t pollute.

If you want to feel better about the air travel you do take, however, there are a few things to keep in mind when picking which flights to take – and perhaps things that, as environmentally-conscious humans – we can encourage the airlines to do to be better citizens of our planet. After all, some have said that plane exhaust kills tens of thousands of people per year.

Fly on newer airplanes

Newer aircraft tend to be more fuel efficient right out the door. Although you may not normally care too much about the kind of plane you fly on when you book your flight, perhaps it’s a good time to start looking! Additionally, new aircraft tend to be a bit nicer in general, perhaps making your travel experience all the much better. Some new aircraft have TV screens or in-flight wifi, for instance – definitely added bonuses.

Additionally, newer aircraft have newer engines that often reduce carbon dioxide emissions by a good deal. Unfortunately, some say some of these newer engines emit at least 40% more nitrogen oxides.

On domestic flights in the United States, there are a few options when flying. That said, there are a whole lot of variables to take into account when determining the “cleanest” plane – something that could be almost impossible to calculate for each possible aircraft. For instance, when you drive, it’s easy to determine your miles per gallon. When you’re flying, the cost can be significantly different for 150 passengers versus 175, especially when we’re factoring luggage and other cargo into the mix.

For the most part, choosing one aircraft over another to fly on in the US isn’t going to do a whole lot – many are relatively new (built within the last 8-10 years), and have a good lifespan. However, in one case in particular, there’s one kind of airplane that’s old and probably could be considered a super-polluter. Luckily, it’s also going away — it’s the MD-80.

American Airlines’ and Delta’s MD-80 series (also known as a ‘Super 80’)

Tracing its flightplan in soot...

Let’s put it out there: the MD-80 is an old airplane — it was first launched in 1980 . Often, when one departs, nasty streams of smoke can sometimes be seen coming out of its two Pratt and Whitney JT8D-200 series engines. Although all aircraft burn gases to make it go forward, there definitely are cleaner ways to do it than others.

Today, two carriers fly the MD80 more than any other carrier in the US – American Airlines and Delta. Delta is the second-largest carrier to fly the MD-80 in the US, but it’s a far, far second.

American Airlines recently put in an order for a great number of new aircraft, intended to replace a majority of their older aircraft – something that many (myself included) see as a very positive thing – not only from an image perspective (who doesn’t like that ‘new plane smell’?), but also good for the environment. Soon, most of these super-polluters will be out of the skies and American will have the newest aircraft among all US-based carriers.

When we take polluters out of the skies, can it ever be a bad thing? I avoid this aircraft at almost all cost.

Fly on aircraft with winglets

Ever noticed how some aircraft have mini-wings that extend vertically from the end of a wing a few inches or a few feet? Small or big, they’re called sharklets or winglets, respectively, and they help reduce fuel consumption up in the air. They work by creating additional vortices (or vortexes) which stimulate lift. Long story short, they make the plane more efficient, sometimes cutting down on fuel consumption by 3-5%. Although that’s clearly not a huge number, like pennies, the savings do add up. Of course, there are a million different variables to determine which aircraft are more fuel efficient than another, but winglets, sharklets and the like help both Airbus and Boeing make more fuel-efficient aircraft.

How do you find an aircraft with winglets? It’s pretty easy: almost all Airbus aircraft have wingtip fences, a type of winglet. Boeing aircraft are a little harder, because they’re an option on older aircraft (they have to be retrofitted, a decision that each carrier makes), though are fairly standard on new aircraft, including the newer 737 models. Sometimes, on flight itineraries, something will mention whether or not the aircraft has winglets. Otherwise, it can be anyone’s guess.

Take more non-stop flights

Nonstop flights are obviously good for a few reasons – you get to your destination sooner, without having to stop – but importantly, it’s like a car: when you stop and go more, you burn more fuel. Sometimes they cost more, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Purchase carbon offsets

co2-exportMy favorite tool, ITA Software Matrix, displays an estimate of your carbon footprint based on estimates it has in its system when you choose your flights. With this knowledge in hand, you can choose to purchase carbon offsets from your favorite site, perhaps helping to plant a tree. When purchasing travel, United also offers a similar option. And with that in mind…

Plant a tree

Just because you can.

In the end

In the end, you don’t always have control over where you fly or what you fly – and sometimes, you do, but the cost is prohibitive to fly on one thing versus another. Regardless, it never hurts to keep an eye for the best options when it comes to your travels – if not for the environment, then to know which seat is best on which airlines’ aircraft, or which aircraft has in-flight wifi. We can’t always reduce the amount that we fly during any given year – work often dictates when we must travel – but we can at least be better stewards of the environment simply by being more aware.