In this new age of green travel, it’s possible to be a more responsible jet-setter even before you back out of the gate. Thanks to the pope, presidential candidates, intensifying natural disasters, and regular doomsday reminders (think: fresh evidence of the imminent disappearance of Miami and New Orleans) global warming has finally gone mainstream. Yet while climate change may no longer be an issue that can wait for the next generation to resolve, those of us who love to travel often find it challenging and—let’s be honest—burdensome to delicately plan a trip around the wellbeing of the environment.
So, what’s a frequent flier to do? Get off on the right foot, literally.
As environmental activism transcends trendiness, airlines are upping their green game, taking to social media to tout their accomplishments, hoping to score points with eco-conscious customers who might care as much about JetBlue’s new urban farm at JFK’s Terminal 5 as they do about the introduction of free fleet-wide wi-fi.
“I think we’re on the brink of a new era of flying responsibly,” says Sophia Leonora Mendelsohn, JetBlue’s Head of Sustainability. “The vast majority of carriers [are] completely focused on the upcoming United Nations ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) agreement.” This mandates that all airlines cap CO2 and commit to carbon neutral growth after 2020, among other significant measures.
Yes, there is great behind-the-scenes progress being made—everything from reducing the weight of drink carts and seats to buying newer more fuel-efficient jets to NextGen technology—but our collective high-altitude emissions are still staggering. There are some 100,000 commercial flights per day, and this figure will only continue to grow, as the number of fliers is set to double in 20 years, says Scott Mayerowitz, airlines reporter at The Associated Press. “Last year, U.S. airlines burned through 16.2 billion gallons of fuel [or 340 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions],” says Mayerowitz.
Fortunately, fliers will be pleasantly surprised to find that softening their personal impact is not complicated—or pricey—and it just may jumpstart a more meaningful getaway. As you prepare to take off for the holidays, consider lightening your carbon footprint with these seven simple tips.
Take a nonstop flight
There’s one more reason you can feel good about spending a little extra to fly nonstop. “My number one easy green tip is to book a nonstop flight,” says Mayerowitz. “Because that is going to use the least amount of fuel. It’s not sexy, but it’s simple and efficient.”
Fly on a newer plane
Given a choice between an older aircraft and a newer, more fuel-efficient aircraft, book the modern aircraft. Green, long-haul choices include Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350. New versions of 737s and A320s/A321s operate shorter flights on many leading airlines. “Just by virtue of being the youngest airline in the U.S., Virgin America is greener over an aging Delta 757,” says Mayerowitz, adding that American Airlines also has newer planes. “A great choice would be to fly a 320 instead of a 757 for the same exact flight.”
Lower the window shades
The next time you’re watching a movie, squinting to see the screen from the bright rays of sun coming through the window, you can let your seatmate know that he’s doing the environment a service by closing the shade, according to Delta rep Ashton Morrow. “Why does the flight attendant ask you to lower your shades and open the vents when it’s warm outside?” Because it helps keep the aircraft cool. When all passengers help out and do this, the aircraft can be 10 degrees cooler. Reducing the cooling load saves energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.”
Good news for under-packers! As the aviation industry’s campaign to lighten the load rages on, passengers can do their part by packing less (subsequently solving the what-do-I-wear quandary). “Delta is packing lighter in an effort to cut fuel consumption and lessen environmental impact by reducing the amount of ice boarded on overnight international flights, replacing heavy pilot manuals (50 pounds) with Microsoft Surface tablets and flight attendant manuals with Nokia Lumia 1520 phablets, as well as installing lighter carbon brakes in place of the high-capacity steel brakes where possible,” says Delta’s Morrow. “If customers pack lighter—making simple changes like leaving that extra pair of shoes at home (two pounds)—the annual environmental impact from reduced fuel consumption is the equivalent to removing 10,500 cars from the road for [an entire] year.”
Compare flight emissions
While Google’s ITA software Matrix is intended for discovering the best flight deals, carbon tracking is one of its lesser-known uses. Comparing the emissions output by different airlines for a similar flight is a quick and efficient way to lighten your carbon footprint. For instance, if you’re flying roundtrip from New York to San Francisco, you will find that a JetBlue flight will emit 644 kg of CO2 versus Virgin America’s 582 kg—a 10 percent smaller carbon footprint—for the same $297 ticket price and departure time.
Be a seat guru
“Extra passengers on a flight are spreading the cost and fuel impact throughout the plane,” says Mayerowitz. The next time you’re searching for a flight from, let’s say, New York to Tampa, take a look at a few of the results you’re considering on SeatGuru.com’s Seat Map feature. You will discover that JetBlue’s A320 flight has 150 seats while Delta’s Boeing 717 has 110 seats; the 40-seat difference—combined with the fact that Delta’s older aircraft is less fuel-efficient, according to Matrix—means a person will emit twice as much CO2 if they choose the Delta flight.
Offset Your Carbon Footprint
Carbon offset programs might be more of a quick fix than a long-term solution, but it’s currently the best option for counteracting our boundless wanderlust. In 2007, Delta pioneered the use of an airline carbon offset program, which to this day benefits The Nature Conservancy’s forest projects in Chile, Virginia, and Belize. A roundtrip flight from New York to London will emit one ton of CO2 per passenger, Delta’s site points out, while one tree conserved through the program will capture up to 7.5 tons of CO2 over its lifetime. “If I have a choice of airlines, and I know one has an effective carbon-neutral program but the other doesn’t, I can chose, as a consumer, to put my money where it does the most good,” says Skift's aviation editor, Marisa Garcia. JetBlue’s CarbonFund.org program supports The Envira Amazonia Project, which preserves 500,000 acres of endangered tropical rainforest in Brazil while also providing the rural community with educational programs, land titles, and health care. When you spend $8 to offset your flight from New York to Seattle or $13.49 from New York to Paris, 100 percent of the tax-deductible donation goes to these and other projects, ranging from wildlife conservation to renewable energy.
Given that our individual max annual CO2 output is 19 tons per year and needs to be reduced to 10 tons by 2030 in order to halt climate change, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, choosing to offset your flight—be it through United, Qantas or Virgin—can make a significant impact. JetBlue’s Mendelsohn suggests travelers “offset, then tweet your airline that you’re doing it and that you care; customer comments on social media sends a message. Vote with your dollar!”