Making Progress in Green Air Travel

NASA ER-2 high-altitude Earth science aircraft
(Photo: NASA/Carla Thomas)

In a few days, I’ll be flying (which I haven’t done in awhile) and it got me thinking: What progress have we made recently in terms of reducing air travel’s carbon footprint?

More than 15 years ago, in 1992, aviation accounted for two percent of the world’s carbon dioxide admissions and 13 percent of all transportation sources’ carbon dioxide emissions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report “Aviation and the Global Atmosphere.” By 2050, that number could double.

We have made some strides to reduce that number. Planes produced today are 70 percent more fuel-efficient per passenger than those from four decades ago, according to the IPCC report. In another 40 years, we could see airplanes that are 40-50 percent more fuel efficient than those of today.

Also, NASA is pushing eco-friendly flying with its Green Flight Challenge, a contest that will award more than a million bucks to the team that creates the best-performing plane that averages 100 miles per hour on a 200-mile flight and gets greater than 200 passenger miles per gallon (PMPG). (PMPG equals miles per gallon multiplied by passenger number. I didn’t know either.)

The contest has been around for three years, but the first two focused on fixes to smaller, lighter aircraft, such as improving safety and efficiency and decreasing noise. NASA, which runs this contest with partner the Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency (CAFE) Foundation, expects entries to include electric, solar-powered, bio-fueled and hybrid-powered planes.

In other green air travel news:

  • - The Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group, which works toward increased use of sustainable fuels, in July added five new airlines—Alaska Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific (a Hong Kong-based outfit), TUIfly (a German airline) and Virgin Blue—to the nine that already belong.
  • - The 10 airlines that comprise the airline alliance oneworld®, including American, British Airways, Qantas and others, are in the process of trading out older airplanes for some 1,300 new, more fuel-efficient, quieter machines that emit fewer greenhouse gases.
  • - On a smaller scale, AirTran became the first North American airline to offer CarbonNeutral® certified bottled water Icelandic Glacial packaged in fully recyclable PET bottles for $2 a pop.
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