High Flyers’ Legroom Generates More Emissions

economy class travel No news that first-class passengers have deeper pockets than economy flyers.  Now the World Bank confirms their carbon footprint is about sevenfold that of the average airborne Joe.

The new study appears as airliners are juggling paradoxical goals: maximize in-flight luxuries while “greening up” operations.  How to market modern air travel that’s free from environmental migraines?

Global air travel spewed 689 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2012, according to the Air Transport Action Group.  That’s 2% of the world’s total emissions and 12% of all generated by transport.  Compare that to ground transportation which accounts for 74% of total transport emissions.   (Aviation is a dirty industry, but cars and trucks remain the biggest polluters.)

People occupy less aircraft real estate when squished into “coach” seating.  More passengers-per-plane equals lower per capita carbon emissions.  As reported in the Christine Science Monitor, with more people to bear the fuel-burn burden, the economy in “economy class” is as environmental as it is financial.  First-class seats are more likely than economy seats to remain unsold, raising their carbon tab even higher.

“The problem with this argument is that the footprint of a passenger on a commercial flight depends more on the space taken up by the passenger, and less on how much the passenger (and luggage) weighs,” Jon Strand, a senior economist at World Bank, wrote on the organization’s blog.

His point being that the weight of those sardine-like passengers with their overstuffed luggage reduces the plane’s fuel-efficiency.  But since that only accounts for 15-20% of loaded aircraft weight, this theory that passenger weight is a critical factor doesn’t fly.

It’s not the passengers’ plight, anyway.  Those airline programs to that encourage flyers to offset emissions by paying into carbon funds really burn me up. Sure, consumers can elect to progress specific initiatives using their purchasing power , but the responsibility to clean up the industry lies with the industry.

Some aircraft manufacturers are exploring lightweight materials and maximally efficient engines and electrical systems. Others are making advances in operations, coordinating with airports to build power plug-ins that allow planes to shut off auxiliary engines during loading, unloading, and cleaning; saving jet fuel and reducing emissions.

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner saves 20% on fuel compared to planes of similar sizes, but it’s been plagued with technical difficulties. Consider next the Airbus A380, a super jumbo jet also with green aspirations. But when they’re purchased by Saudi princes as private jets to fly a handful of friends and family, no level of aircraft leanness will render them carbon-friendly.

It will be interesting to see if the like of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Airlines (he pledged $3 BIL to green up aviation) or Canada’s Air Transat (the first certified green airline by World Green Aviation Council) manage to solve the luxury versus reduced environmental impact conundrum.

In the meantime, at least there’s an environmental reason to feel pretty good about squeezing in coach.

Image of crowded commercial flight from OutTravelers

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