Are there any efforts underway to green the air travel industry?

Are there any efforts underway to green the air travel industry? It seems to me that it must be one dirty business from a pollution standpoint.

—Jim Corey, Seattle, WA

Environmental battles over the siting and expansion of airports are as old as the air travel industry itself, but only in recent years have the airlines themselves been under pressure to go green.

And there’s no time like the present for the industry to take some action: Air pollution from commercial jets is a growing concern among scientists, as is air travel’s role in climate change because of the more acute warming effect of emissions when they are disbursed so much closer to the upper atmosphere.

On a flight from New York to Denver a commercial jet generates between 840 to 1,660 pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger, or about what an SUV generates in a month.© D’Arcy Norman, courtesy Flickr

According to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, an independent group of scientists that advises the British government, emissions from aircraft will likely be one of the major contributors to global warming by the year 2050. According to USA Today, on a flight from New York to Denver, a commercial jet generates between “840 to 1,660 pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger. That’s about what an SUV generates in a month.”

Despite still gloomy times for the industry post-9/11, a few are actually responding to the call. Virgin is blazing new trails as part of a $3 billion investment in energy efficiency. The company is experimenting with biodiesel and ethanol—fuels derived from crops—and has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in ethanol-related businesses. But don’t expect to ride on a biofuel-powered jet anytime soon.

Airplane makers are getting in on the act, too. Boeing successfully flew the world’s first hydrogen-powered, fuel cell airplane in April 2008. A company spokesperson called the plane—a small one-seater—”full of promises for a greener future.” Boeing is working to develop a commercial version, but uncertainties about hydrogen production and distribution put this advancement well into the future, too.

So what can consumers do to fly greener today? Sharon Beaulaurier of GreenLight magazine suggests choosing airlines with newer, more fuel-efficient fleets such as JetBlue, Singapore Airlines or Virgin.She adds that direct flights are better than those with stopovers, as frequent take-offs and landings use more fuel than when the planes are cruising. She also recommends avoiding airlines and airports with bad track records for delays, which leave planes idling and spewing greenhouse gases for hours unnecessarily.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) runs, which helps fliers choose airlines and airports based on on-time departures. Airlines with poor records include American, Atlantic Southeast, ExpressJet, Mesa and United, according to NATCA, which also calls Chicago’s O”Hare, New York’s LaGuardia, Newark, Philadelphia and San Francisco the worst airports for catching on-time flights.

Meanwhile, the European Union wants to require airlines touching down in Europe to participate in continent-wide carbon reduction programs already in place. Backers hope it will cut Europe’s exponential growth in airline emissions in half by 2020. Some carriers oppose the plan and are fighting it in court.