It may seem an odd topic in the current crisis, but right now is actually the perfect time to talk about the impact air travel has on the environment. For all the terrible news that the COVID-19 pandemic brings, one of many virtues to come from this vice is the improvement in air quality, both locally and globally. 

Of all the entirely understandable moans and groans coming from households and businesses in recent weeks, the sudden restriction on our freedom to fly all over the planet without a second thought does not seem to be registering. 

But what will happen when we get through this? There will probably be a significant delay in our travel habits returning to anything like ‘normal’ – both because of ongoing concerns about containing the virus, and no doubt because some airlines will no longer be in business. But the short-term caution and reduction in supply will inevitably give way to our short-term wants and needs, and airmiles and lounge passes will find their place once more.

Before COVID-19 Grounded All Flights

The consensus was, and still is, absolute; travelling by air is bad for the environment. Airplanes create tons of pollution, which has made them the target of much justified concern and criticism among ecologists and ecologically savvy travellers alike.

However, there is a silver lining. You don’t necessarily have to give up flying altogether to reduce or limit your carbon footprint. A few simple changes can make a big difference to your environmental impact.

How Much Pollution is Caused by Planes?

Air travel may be a remarkably convenient way to travel the world, but it is not without its downsides. Airplanes do take a hefty toll on the environment.

Extensive studies and data have revealed that the average European who regularly flies generates around 10 tons of CO2 emissions per year, while the average American generates up to 19 tons.

How Bad is Air Travel for the Environment?

To illustrate just how much airplanes affect our environment, a single round-trip flight from New York to Europe has the warming effects of around 2 to 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person travelling. The aviation industry burns through a massive 1.5 billion barrels of crude oil a year and contributes to more than 2% of global carbon emissions – a number that could rise to 22% or higher by 2050 if aviation doesn’t go green.

So, what’s the upside, and are there any solutions? Airplane pollution may be concerning, but fuel costs comprise around a third of airline operating costs, so it is definitely in these companies’ interests to seek more sustainable alternatives.

How to Reduce Airplane Pollution

Ultimately, the task of reducing pollution and emissions from airplanes themselves lies with the carriers more than anyone else. However, there are a few things you can do to keep your personal carbon emissions as low as possible.

They include:

  • Travelling light. Packing efficiently and travelling as light as you can has a notable impact on your aircraft’s carbon emissions. The weight you save means that your airplane will have to burn less fuel in the long run.
  • Choose economy. According to a study by the World Bank, and based on the number of people travelling per ton of emissions from each flight, business class flights can generate up to 3 times more carbon emissions than economy flights. For first class, the CO2 emissions are up to 9 times greater.
  • Getting an eco-friendly ride. While you may not be able to change airplane emissions, you can opt for going green when hiring a car. Look for hydrogen and battery electric cars or hybrids, rather than a gas guzzling SUV. Of course, if you can take public transport to the airport, all the greener!
  • Being selective with your hotel. Resorts and hotels have significant impacts in terms of energy usage, food, and LEED certification. Be sure to check your hotel’s website for Responsible Travel, Environment or Good Stewards sections, as these will explain their efforts to lower environmental impact.

If you do your bit when flying, you can minimise your carbon footprint and be part of the solution. And if you’ve learnt anything from the COVID-19 crisis, it’s that video conferencing really isn’t such a bad alternative to face to face meetings. Do you really need to take that flight at all?