The future of sustainable air travel: How airlines (and you) can fly more efficiently

January 25, 2020, 9:00 PM UTC
Air New Zealand currently operates a fleet of 13 787-9 Dreamliners.
Courtesy of Air New Zealand

When Greta Thunberg expressed her refusal to fly, owing to the environmental impact it imposes, she sparked widespread “flight shaming,” making travelers think twice about their means of transportation and prompting them to take a more thoughtful approach to travel.

“Something we are often asked about is how ‘flight shame’ has impacted SAS,” says Lars Andersen Resare, head of environment for Scandinavian Airlines. “We believe it’s important that people can continue to meet and that the world can continue to travel. But we can’t continue to just travel without adjusting to a more sustainable way.”

Aviation is responsible for 2% of all global carbon emissions (CO2), and according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), approximately 4.5 billion passengers will board commercial flights this year, with that number almost doubling by 2037.

New aircraft and biofuels

New strategies to mitigate use of fossil fuels are being implemented, and according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), sustainable aviation fuel (SAF)—such as aviation biofuel—is key to reducing carbon emissions. Currently, there are only five airports with regular biofuel distribution today (Bergen, Norway; Brisbane, Australia; Los Angeles; Oslo; and Stockholm), with others offering occasional supply.

Aviation biofuel suppliers say SAF can cut the carbon footprint of airlines by up to 80%, but it costs up to four times as much as normal jet fuel, which has curtailed usage and demand for production, according to a recent article from Reuters.

Scandinavian Airlines aims to power all of its domestic flights—accounting for 17% of the carrier’s total fuel consumption—with biofuel by 2030. And for its international flights, like the newly launched direct flight from Los Angeles to Copenhagen, the airline took the 11-hour carbon impact into consideration. This year, the company will fully upgrade its entire fleet of airplanes to more fuel-efficient models, including the introduction of the Airbus A350 to the Los Angeles market this June, significantly reducing emissions.

There’s also the Airbus A320neo, which incorporates the latest in aerodynamics, leading to 50% reduced noise as well as fuel efficiency with 16% lower fuel burn and carbon emissions over previous generation aircraft.

What can you do?

Think about biofuels. Choose airlines that either blend biofuels with fossil fuels or those that have incorporated newer, more fuel-efficient aircraft into their fleets. JetBlue, for instance, aims to be the first U.S. airline to become fully carbon neutral later this year. 

At some airlines, you can even add sustainable aviation fuel when booking a ticket.

An Air New Zealand flight attendant pours coffee into edible Twiice cups.
Courtesy of Air New Zealand

Reduce waste

The amount of waste created on airplanes—uneaten food, plastic cups, utensils, straws, plastic coverings on blankets, and other items given on board—plays a substantial role in the aviation impact.

Qantas, for example, generates more than 33,000 tons of waste per year on flights. By 2021, however, the airline plans to reduce that waste by 75%, which would also include the elimination of up to 100 million plastic items used in lounges across the world.

Among others, Air New Zealand is also committed to implementing a campaign to remove nearly 55 million single-use plastic items this year. “Items such as plastic cups, water bottles, eye-mask wrappers, and toothbrushes are being swapped for more sustainable options,” says a spokesperson for the airline. “In a fun initiative [in December 2019], we trialed edible coffee cups. We serve more than 8 million cups of coffee each year and felt that edible cups were an innovative way to reduce waste.”

What can you do?

Bring your own snacks in reusable containers or bags.

Fill a BPA-free reusable plastic bottle prior to boarding.

Reuse the cup the airline provides.

Seek out reusable utensils made from bamboo or other compostable materials to use during meal service (and throughout your trip).

A partnership with Twiice introduced edible vanilla-flavored leakproof cups on Air New Zealand flights in 2019.
Courtesy of Air New Zealand

Offset emissions

Offsetting CO2 helps reduce emissions from air travel through individual actions before and after a flight. Airlines also direct portions of offset sales to investments in environmental organizations, activities such as reforestation, or renewable energy sources.

Scandinavian Airlines exclusively purchases CO2 compensation from energy projects linked to renewable energy conversions in wind power.

In 2019, Hawaiian Airlines, along with nine other members of the Hawai’i Green Growth Sustainability Business Forum, invested in a pilot carbon offset project expected to result in the management of the 8,245-acre Kona Hema forest preserve on Hawaii Island.

A Hawaiian Airlines A321neo aircraft flying over Maui.
Courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines

Many airlines are now encouraging customers to offset their carbon emissions during the booking process. Since integrating an offsetting functionality into its booking flow system in late 2016, Air New Zealand has evolved from less than 100 carbon-offset bookings a month to more than 15,000. In the past year, customers have partially or fully offset more than 183,600 journeys, a 41% increase from 2018.

As the gateway to your destination, airlines represent just one step in taking action. Alaska Airlines, for instance, has partnered with to guide passengers on ways to live and travel sustainably.

What can you do?

Choose to offset your flight. If an airline offers this option, you can often do so during the booking process. When buying “carbon credits” through Air New Zealand, for example, all the money that’s collected goes directly toward its FlyNeutral program, which designates funds to permanent native forestry projects in New Zealand and carefully selected international renewable energy projects providing clean energy to communities.

Engage on the ground. Seek out tourist activities that help the earth and support local businesses that focus on sustainability.

Fly direct. This alleviates the impact of takeoff and landing, which generates 25% of a flight’s emissions.

Travel lightly. This helps lower the drag on the plane, which will use less fuel.

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