While air travel suffers the most animosity, it actually produces less than 2% of greenhouse gas emissions. Although this is a small share, it is one of the fastest growing polluters. Over the past 20 years, pollution from air travel has increased by almost 130% compared to road transport, for instance, which has only increased by less than 20%.
Europe and European airlines – KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Lufthansa Group, British Airways, among others – are leading the way in air travel sustainability, followed by the rest of the world including Emirates, American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Etihad, and many others. Carriers are building on several pillars to reduce air pollution and increase the use of renewable resources.
First and foremost, it is technological innovation. Similar to the automotive industry, for instance, newer types of aircraft have lower fuel consumption, lower noise levels and, of course, lower pollution. The Boeing 737 MAX or the Airbus A320 NEO, for instance, are more environmentally friendly. One of the least polluting aircraft is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner used on long-haul flights – the Dreamliner saves up to 20% fuel compared to other similarly sized aircraft. New engines, lightweight composite materials and advanced avionics ensure greater efficiency. One of the unique things about this model of aircraft is its wingtip, designed to allow the aircraft to use fuel more efficiently and to climb faster – the first time it has been introduced in commercial service.
The use of renewable materials in the production of new aircraft has also become a priority. The management and sorting of the waste produced by the normal operation of aircraft is also important. Carriers can also switch to electronic versions of on-board magazines and information materials and can use recyclable packaging.
Fuel consumption is another factor that influences the environmental footprint of aircraft. Lighter aircraft on a more efficient and shorter route with suitable airspeed means less fuel consumed. From the passenger’s point of view, it is also possible to contribute to a lighter (greener) aircraft - by travelling "Light", i.e., without checked baggage to save a few kilograms in the hold.
The amount of emissions per passenger per kilometre of travel is also an important indicator. In practice this means that the more seats sold on the aircraft, the lower the amount produced per passenger. The goal for the airlines is to fill as many seats as possible and not fly “empty planes” unnecessarily. In March 2023, low-cost carriers have managed to push their carbon footprint to a level comparable to a train journey, and they have achieved this by the high occupancy of their aircraft. The flip side of the coin, however, is that people travel on low-cost carriers “even if they don’t have to” just because of the low ticket price – this acts as a catalyst for travel.
In the context of the growing interest in sustainability, a number of initiatives and projects have been launched in the aviation sector, to motivate carriers to reduce their pollution. One such initiative has come from the airline alliance SkyTeam, which has launched the second round of the Sustainable Flight Challenge, and extended it in 2023 not only to alliance members but also to partners and other “friendly” carriers. Last year, they achieved a 15% reduction in carbon intensity through this initiative. Further information on the challenge and how to participate can be found online HERE. After the challenge was completed and evaluated, airlines shared their “best practices” and other know-how with each other, e.g. waste management, best air routes, etc.
The European Union is also working with the International Civil Aviation Organization to implement the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (Corsia) – allowing airlines to offset their emissions by investing in green projects – in an effort to reduce aviation pollution. The European Union has been involved in the programme since January 2021, when the voluntary phase was launched. The programme aims to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions from aviation. The original agreement was to stabilise pollution at the 2020 level, but the emissions calculations will be based on the calculation during each year of the pilot phase, i.e. 2021 to 2023. Based on the emissions, the offsetting requirements will then be calculated; these are likely to be more stringent as a result of calculating emissions from three years.
Green fares - modern carriers that are trying to increase sustainability and reduce the environmental footprint of their flights offer the so-called Green fares. These tariffs are slightly more expensive than standard fares, but offer several benefits to clients. A passenger buying a ticket on this fare reduces the carbon dioxide emitted per person by supporting the purchase of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), a more environmentally friendly fuel which is then used on flights. In return, the passenger will receive better conditions from the carrier for any changes to their flight ticket, cancellations, and other benefits included in the fare. This type of fuel is currently expensive enough that carriers cannot afford to use it by default on all flights.
The easiest option for greener travel is to choose direct flights and fly with as few connections as possible. Direct flights reduce the amount of pollution that is released into the air, as the vast majority is produced during take-off. The Polish carrier LOT is one of the so-called eco-carriers, deploying only the Boeing 787 Dreamliner on flights to the US without a transfer.