COMMENTARY: Green Test Flights

Airlines test everything—from renewable fuels, to carbon offsetting to ditching in-flight magazines to lighten their loads.

Japan Airlines has replaced some 30% of its fleet with newer models.©

The rising oil prices are hitting the airline industry especially hard. According to the International Air Transport Association, which tracks the price of jet fuel on a daily basis, gas has gone up by more than 100% over the past year. And it"s good news for the environment—the high prices are causing airlines to rethink their fuel usage and look into ways to improve efficiency.

The airline industry accounts for about 2-3% of total greenhouse gas emissions, according to statistics. Although it"s nowhere near the emissions generated by the rest of the transportation industry, the problem is that more and more people fly each day. The U.N."s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expects fuel usage to rise from its current level of 143 million annual tons to 496 million tons by the year 2050.

In the past 50 years planes have become at least 40% more efficient, but as more and more airlines declare bankruptcy, efforts to green the fleets are reaching new heights. Take Japan Airlines—the company has replaced some 30% of its fleet in the past five years with newer models, and those traveling to the land of the rising sun can watch an advertisement on flights about how the plane is being revamped to become more environmentally friendly. Continental Airlines has spent more than $16 billion to give its fleet more fuel efficiency—along with employing 13 full-time environmentalists.

The question is: are airlines doing this to save money, or are they really dedicated to reducing emissions and saving the environment? The standard response to both the environment and rising fuel costs is to tinker with existing technology, adding things such as fuel-saving winglets to airplanes, which help to prevent drag, or applying new methods of repainting and pretreatment of old planes that reduce the amount of chemicals used. Although fleets are being replaced, most still use the same type of fuel and fly with the same huge jet engines.

The airlines that have tested different types of fuels have done just that: they"ve tested different types of fuels. They have yet to replace traditional fuel in their commercial flights.

Here are a few airlines that have looked into alternative fuels:
" Qatar Airways was the first to fly with an alternative fuel in its engines—Shell GTL Jet Fuel. The fuel, which is a "gas-to-liquid" fuel, doesn"t use oil, but the emissions from it are about the same as oil.
" Virgin Airways was the first commercial aircraft to fly partially with biofuel in one of its main tanks.
" Japan Airlines will be the first Asian airline to fly with cellulosic biofuel when it tries out a second generation biofuel in the first half of 2009.
" Air New Zealand has announced that it is looking into biofuels as an option for its fleet.

Costa Rican Nature Air claims to be the only carbon neutral airline.© nature air

It"s great that these airlines are looking into new options, but who knows when they are going to become commercially available? And while some airlines may be looking into cleaner fuels, others might be looking in the opposite direction. In Jan. 2008 the NRDC sent out letters to 15 U.S. and Canadian airlines asking them to stop using "dirty fuels." According to Liz Barratt-Brown of the NRDC, "Our research shows us that our biggest U.S. carriers, United Airlines, American Airlines and Southwest, are already using tar sands oil in the Chicago and Denver airports." Labeled as a dirty fuel by the NRDC, tar sands oil production takes more energy and releases more CO2 than traditional oil production.

The best way to increase efficiency using existing technology might be spending less time taxiing on the runway before take-off and after landing. All that shuttling around with antsy passengers burns a lot of unnecessary fuel that could be better used during actual flight. In fact, the International Air Transport Association says it"s possible for airlines to cut their annual CO2 emissions by 12% just by making air-traffic control run more smoothly.

Some airlines, though, have chosen different routes than increasing fuel efficiency in order to make their blue sky flights more green. Carbon offsetting is the new trend, whether voluntary or mandatory on the part of the passengers. In short, passengers pay for a percentage of their costs to go toward forest renovation, wind energy or other green causes. This has led to the concept of a carbon-neutral airline, where all of the monetary value of emissions are paid back in full to environmental causes. Two airlines have so far claimed to be carbon neutral: Britain"s SilverJet, which went out of business, and Costa Rica"s NatureAir, a fleet of seven planes that has worked with the Costa Rican government since 2004 to fund conservation and alternative energy projects.

However, carbon offsetting seems to depend mostly on passengers and how willing they are to open their wallets for the environment. Australia"s Qantas Airways gives passengers the choice of calculating their own emissions from the flight and then buying carbon dioxide credits. But it remains to be seen whether passengers will dig into their own pockets as the price of airline tickets continues to rise with the cost of oil.

In the meantime, some airlines are getting either creative or desperate in looking for ways to combat the costs of oil and the costs to the environment. Alaska Air Group, much like a crew making a last attempt to reduce the weight of a sinking boat, began cutting back some of its in-flight magazines. By taking just five magazines out from each of its flights, Alaska Air says it saves $10,000 a year in fuel. U.S. Airways, on the other hand, says it saves $1.7 million in fuel costs just by lightening its beverage carts. And this summer, American Airlines, much to the disgruntlement of customers wanting to jet off on vacations, has started charging $15 for a checked bag. There have even been rumors of airlines charging passengers based on their weight.

Whether all these measures will work in the long run for both bank accounts and the environment still remains to be seen, as airlines are only just experimenting with a lot of the new technology. At the very least, it"s a good marketing ploy as going green becomes more popular among travelers. And it"s the travelers’ actions that will likely make the most difference in the industry.

CONTACTS: International Air Transport Association; Qatar Airways; Virgin Airways; Japan Airlines; Air New Zealand:; NatureAir

AMANDA PETERKA is an editorial intern at E.