This is Part IV in my series on reforming the commercial air travel system in the United States, and it’s timely given the climate summit that is now going on in New York. Part I (basic comfort standards for passengers) is here; Part II (regarding food service) is here, and Part III (calling for an end to the “hub and spoke” system of organization) is here. Tonight we get to possibly the most difficult and painful aspect of our air travel system: its environmental impact, and how we can mitigate it.
Air travel is costly, not just in terms of dollars, but also its effect on our planet and its climate. Furthermore, the impact of air transportation on climate change is getting worse, not better. Currently, the IPCC, the international body tracking manmade climate change, estimates that commercial aviation is responsible for roughly 3.5% of the climate change problem, and this number is likely to rise to 5%, or perhaps even higher, by 2050 if something isn’t done. It’s not merely the emissions of aircraft themselves that are increasing carbon in the atmosphere, though this is undeniably occurring. The collateral costs of refining jet fuel from fossil components, ground transportation options, and infrastructure such as airports feed into commercial aviation’s carbon footprint as well. Furthermore, premium air travel, such as the first and business class that airlines really want to take care of (because they make more money) than having to deal with us pedestrian peons in coach, has a greatly outsized environmental impact per mile flown than economy and coach class. The fat cats sitting in first class are making things worse.
You can see some of the effects of air travel on climate just by looking up. Because jets operate in the high atmosphere, the carbon emissions that they do produce are more severe in their effect than similar emissions would be on the ground. Contrails left by high-altitude jets often morph into cirrus clouds, which have a climate change effect that is not fully understood. It’s ironic that ignorant people who believe in the conspiracy fantasy that these are “chemtrails,” which is utter nonsense of course, often do not believe in manmade climate change, despite the fact that their imaginary “chemtrails” are in fact evidence of manmade climate change.
Turboprop planes, like this one, are much more environmentally sound to operate than large jumbo jets. They would also serve better in a “point to point” air travel model, which I advocate.
What can we do to make air travel less costly in environmental terms? There are several things, but I guarantee the commercial airlines won’t like them. One excellent idea is to utilize smaller planes, especially those with turbo-prop engines–the “puddle jumpers”–than large jumbo jets. These planes burn fuel much more efficiently and they fly lower, so contrail pollution is less. Planes such as these carry fewer passengers and generally fly shorter hops than do the big jets. As it just so happens, one of my previous suggestions, to abolish the “hub and spoke” model of travel and go to a point-to-point system, meshes well with heavier use of turbo-prop planes. If airlines get away from the wasteful and delicate “hub and spoke” system and start serving smaller markets direct, obviously fewer people will be on each flight; thus smaller planes with shorter ranges make sense.
Another suggestion is one that airlines will really hate: abolish frequent flyer programs. This sounds like commercial sacrilege, I know, but frequent flyer programs are one of the major contributors to aviation-caused climate change, because they foster a lot of unnecessary air travel, especially by the aforementioned fat cats that are more likely than coach passengers to have an airline credit card that earns miles. For-profit companies’ abuse of frequent flyer programs is especially problematic; does your company really need to send you to Pittsburgh, or can that meeting be done by teleconference instead? Norway abolished frequent flyer programs in 2002, and the idea has been suggested in the United States, usually meeting with gasps of horror from airline executives and lobbyists. But reforming our air travel system will require the airlines to swallow a lot of pills they will no doubt find bitter, so simply add this one to the list.
High speed rail, like this DeutscheBahn train, is commonly used in Europe. Suggestions to build a high speed rail system in the United States are treated like a joke. This is going to change.
The third suggestion I have is admittedly thinking big, but climate change is a big problem, and so are those facing our airline system. An ideal solution to the streamlining, modernization and humanization of our air travel system would be a holistic solution that also addresses other transportation systems. If air travel becomes more expensive in the future–as it certainly will, especially when addressing the environmental concerns–it would certainly behoove us to develop alternative forms of transportation to pick up the slack if and when air travel begins to price itself out of demand. I’m thinking specifically of high speed rail systems, plans for which have been around for decades, but the political (and fiscal) will to build them is sorely lacking. What if we developed a safe, efficient and less carbon-intensive rail system, especially in the compact Northeast, and began reducing airline capacity? I already travel pretty frequently on Amtrak in the Pacific Northwest, and although it takes longer, its cheapness, comfort, better environmental record and far more efficient operation makes it much more attractive than a flight between, say, Portland, Oregon and Seattle. Heavy public investment in high-speed rail or other options, especially when coupled with a serious effort to develop clean renewable energy resources in the transportation sector, will pay very heavy rewards, in terms of economic opportunity and environmental stewardship. But this is an admittedly long-term investment; light rail systems are heavy, expensive assets that must be placed to meet demand not now, but 50 years from now. Few of our politicians or business executives think this way–and that itself is a problem.
As the Global Climate Summit this week demonstrates, we simply have no other choice but to make our lifestyles and our world less destructive environmentally and socially. Air travel contributes significantly to climate change. Therefore, the question is not if we should reform the air travel system, but how, when, and who will pay for it. Let me repeat: dealing with these questions is not optional. Climate change is going to decide these questions sooner or later whether we like the answers or not.