Ask the pilot

One airline is taking climate change very seriously. Will others follow suit? Plus: What to do with all that on-board trash?

Published February 29, 2008 11:14AM (EST)

Last week we looked at the fact and fallacy of aircraft emissions and their effect on the environment. In summary, commercial planes account for only about 5 percent of the world's total greenhouse gas pollutants, and are a lot more fuel-efficient than people give them credit for. However, the rapid growth of civil aviation will drastically increase the industry's contributions of climate-changing emissions; by the middle of the century, assuming carbon emissions from other sources are curtailed, aviation could be the single biggest contributor to climate change.

First, the obvious question: The efficiency of modern engines notwithstanding, considering that the airlines are so beholden to oil prices, why has there not been a stronger push for alternative fuels or new propulsion systems?

There's no good answer, I'm afraid. To be fair, the same can be asked about postindustrial society as a whole. Rising fuel costs affect a lot more than just airlines, and the dangers of long-term reliance on fossil fuels are well known. If you ask me, there is no technical or strategic reason for the lack of efforts; it's merely symptomatic of our larger malaise when it comes to energy policy. We're entrenched. Not that research isn't taking place. Boeing and others are looking into hydrogen fuel-cell technology, for instance, but any widespread application will be many years away.

And not that some carriers -- one in particular -- aren't taking climate change very seriously. That'd be Virgin Atlantic. The London-based airline has announced a $3 billion investment in renewable-energy initiatives, and promises to someday power its entire fleet using biofuel. Virgin Fuel is the entity created by Virgin's chairman, Sir Richard Branson, who hopes to produce and market aviation biofuel worldwide. (The environmental benefits of some types of biofuel are themselves questionable, and there are numerous technical complications that need to be overcome. I wonder if Virgin Fuel will prove more popular than the ill-fated Virgin Cola.)

In the meantime, Branson believes that global airline emissions can be reduced by up to 25 percent in as little as two years. A major step toward this goal, he argues, would be the optimizing of air traffic control (ATC) routes. Currently, more than 30 separate ATC organizations control flights over Europe, a setup that Branson rightly describes as a "mess." According to the International Air Transport Association, traffic delays in Europe account for a quarter-million hours of extra flight per year. Branson advocates a simpler, unified agency to better coordinate flights, shortening flight times and reducing fuel use.

That dovetails with his push for the widespread use of "continuous descent approaches," a technique whereby aircraft essentially glide to a landing from cruise altitude rather than face a series of inefficient step-down descents and speed changes. Aircraft burn considerably more fuel at lower altitudes, and allowing a constant gradient descent at a low power setting would save thousands of pounds of fuel per flight.

Another of Branson's big ideas is the use of "starting grids" at major airports. Basically, under the plan, aircraft would be towed to starting positions close to the runway instead of taxiing in lengthy conga lines with their engines running, which would greatly reduce on-the-ground fuel burn and subsequent emissions.

These are all good ideas, if not entirely practicable. The grids proposal works in theory, I guess, but among other problems it would require a major redesign of many airports. It's a large-scale concept for a small part of the overall problem. Similarly, for continuous descent approaches to become commonplace, massive changes in ATC procedures would be required.

But the flamboyant Branson is a man who has never met an overly ambitious idea he didn't like, and he has succeeded with many of them. "With global warming," says Sir Richard, "the world is heading for a catastrophe." How many airline CEOs would have the gumption to admit such a thing?

Virgin has meanwhile implemented a long list of smaller-scale initiatives, including using lighter paint on its aircraft, replacing metal cargo bins with lightweight composite ones, and installing lighter cabin furnishings.

All good, but while Virgin is a high-profile carrier, with fewer than 40 aircraft it's a fraction the size of its chief competitors -- British Airways (235 planes), for example, or any of the American majors. These sorts of initiatives are carried out more easily on a small platform, but perhaps, in time, one of the megacarriers will become similarly engaged.

Speaking of small platforms, kudos to Nature Air, a Costa Rican domestic carrier that proudly claims to be the planet's only carbon-neutral airline. Over the past four years, Nature Air says it has offset more than 10,000 tons of carbon emissions through green investments and reforestation efforts in its home country.

Several airlines, including Virgin and Delta, allow passengers to purchase inexpensive offsets when booking their reservations online. Delta was the first U.S. airline to offer such an option. Travelers may contribute $5.50 for a domestic round-trip flight, or $11 for international round-trip flights, with proceeds going to the Conservation Fund. (Together with the Conservation Fund, Delta has committed to planting more than 47,000 trees -- one for each of its employees -- in protected areas along the U.S. Gulf Coast.)

Or, for a small fee, third-party organizations like Climate Care and GreenSeat will offset the estimated C02 of your journey, investing the money in sustainable energy projects around the world.

Now let's forget fuel for a minute and talk about other forms of pollution. One thing that always shocks me is the amount of material waste -- namely plastics, paper, styrofoam and aluminum -- generated and thrown away by airlines (and their customers). Take the number of trays, cups, soda cans, snack wrappers and discarded reading material produced during the average flight and multiply it by the 40,000 or so daily commercial departures around the world. In the U.S. nearly 2 million people fly daily. That's a minimum of 2 million plastic cups alone, just in this country.

A few days ago I was working a flight from Europe to the United States. I went aboard early to set up my gear in the cockpit, and afterward took a walk through the cabin. The cleaners were still at work dealing with the leftovers of 200-plus passengers who'd just disembarked. What they'd left behind was a sight to behold. It looked as though a cyclone had blown through the 767. There were hundreds of cups, cans, wrappers, newspapers and magazines lying on, around and under the seats. I spotted dozens of fabric eyeshades -- included in the airline's giveaway amenities kits -- strewn around the floor where people had casually discarded them. By the time the cleaners were finished, they'd packed three industrial-size bags full of detritus. And this isn't counting the trash that had already been collected during the flight by the cabin crew.

How much of this stuff is recycled, and do we really need to generate so much of it in the first place? Some simple measures would go a long way toward reducing and reusing.

During flight, cabin staff typically come around and collect everything in a single trash container. Flights are often short and cabin service needs to be quick, but it would not take elaborate efforts to throw cans into one bag and plastic cups into another. And obviously, if we weren't creating such a mountain of trash, we wouldn't have to worry so much about what to do with it. For instance, would it not be a good idea to offer passengers the option of receiving a cup? I am often handed a small container of juice and a cup, even though it would be perfectly acceptable to drink directly from the container. On longer flights with multiple beverage services, cups are collected and thrown away each time, instead of allowing passengers to reuse the first one. Not only would cutting down the number of cups be more environmentally friendly, it would also save money. (Fold-down cup holders are a seat-back option available on most Boeing and Airbus planes, but so far I've encountered them only on non-U.S. carriers.)

And is it just me, or is the packaging of airline food (what still exists of it) extravagantly wasteful? The other day on a flight to New York, when snacks were given out, each passenger got a lidded plastic tray and, even though the small roll-up sandwich could easily be eaten by hand, a plastic knife and fork wrapped in a plastic envelope. Forgive me for not having a scale on hand, but my snack consisted of approximately 7 ounces of petroleum-derived plastic and 3 ounces of actual food. A few minutes later I asked for an orange juice, and received a small plastic bottle and, naturally, the requisite plastic cup to go with it, dropped onto my tray table before I had the chance to say no.

According to a spokesperson for the Airline Transport Association, the industry's main trade group, whether an airline recycles usually depends on whether such services are available at a particular airport. "Recycling of materials generally reflects the availability of recycling opportunities in the localities where airlines fly," says the spokesperson. "The airlines and their service partners seek and take advantage of recycling opportunities where they are available. ATA and the associations that represent the airports are working to expand recycling opportunities to more locations."

Maybe, but airlines themselves can make it happen if they choose.

Once again, it's Virgin Atlantic whose efforts are the most comprehensive and impressive. The company's statement reads as follows: "Virgin Atlantic's Onboard Recycling Program asks passengers to hand in glass bottles and cans and leave newspapers on their seats to enable recycling. Cabin Crew members collect cans and bottles separately than typical waste product, to make sure items are recycled or thrown away properly. Along with recycling newspaper, the expired in-flight magazines are thrown in the recycling bin as well. All items onboard that can be re-used are accounted for. Virgin Atlantic feels these small efforts should be a universal task for all airlines. This, combined with the weight reduction program, will help us achieve our target waste reduction of 50 percent less to landfill by 2012."

Impressive, though again Virgin is comparatively tiny, and it's no real surprise that a European carrier is leading the charge. What about some of the U.S. majors?

"We are the only U.S. carrier to release a comprehensive environmental disclosure," says American Airlines spokesman Tim Wagner, "covering everything from carbon emissions to recycling. We are ahead of most of our competitors in this regard." Wagner says that airport vendors take care of the materials separation and recycling after landing, and that flight attendants are responsible for can collection. The cans are recycled, and money from deposits is then donated to charity.

Similarly, Delta says that it recycles all aluminum, plastic and paper products on domestic flights into its Atlanta megahub, with proceeds going to Habitat for Humanity. Delta flight attendants collect approximately two and a half tons of material for recycling each week. Additionally, Delta has reduced water consumption by 50 percent at its Technical Operations Center in Atlanta, and has introduced several hundred electric vehicles to its airport ground support fleet.

While a few airlines are stepping forward, the industry has, for the most part, been pretty halfhearted in its efforts. There's plenty more they could do, much of which would benefit not only the environment but their bottom lines as well.

Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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