Whenever I’m planning a trip, I do my best to fly with relatively eco-friendly airlines, stay at environmentally conscious hotels, and book tours with responsible travel operators. There are many ways we can all become more responsible travelers. There are even some destinations that are better choices than others for sustainable tourism!
If you’re trying to lower your carbon footprint and become a more responsible traveler, there are many things you can do when traveling, including eating local foods at your destination, always bringing your reusable straw and water bottle, and packing as light as possible. But you can make an even bigger impact when you choose to travel with an environmentally responsible airline.
While we can’t really call any airline completely eco-friendly, some are doing more than others to improve their technology and practices.
What Airlines are doing to Become more Sustainable
Many airlines are making changes to attempt to reduce their carbon footprint. For example, companies are investing in newer, more environmentally friendly airplanes that use less fuel and are designed to allow them to reduce drag and gasoline consumption. Older aircrafts which use more kerosene have been retired.
But airlines aren’t just stopping there, they are also integrating sustainable design. Some are using recycled seating materials, reducing paper waste, and making lighter equipment to offset their carbon footprint. And many companies serve vegetarian and vegan meals to cater to their environmentally conscious customers.
Budget is Better – For Your Wallet and the Planet!
One unexpected way to help decrease your carbon footprint while traveling is to choose a budget airline. Budget airlines are better for the environment because they tend to have very full flights due to the low price point for tickets. A full flight is better for the environment because it means more people are “using” the same amount of fuel, lowering each individual passenger’s impact.
Vote With Your Dollars
While many airlines are trying to reduce their carbon footprint, they aren’t all making the same progress. Some companies are “greener” than others, so choosing these when you travel can also lessen your environmental impact. I’m a strong believer in voting with your dollars. If you choose to spend money on the most eco-friendly travel options, that helps those programs grow and encourages competitors to improve their level of sustainability.
Here are some of the best eco-friendly airlines to travel with when trying to keep your carbon emissions as low as possible:
The 6 Most Eco-Friendly Airlines
1. Alaska Airlines
Alaska Airlines is a Seattle-based airline that services the U.S., Mexico, Canada, and Costa Rica, with hubs in Seattle, Portland, Anchorage, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. For travelers on the West Coast, Alaska Airlines is a great choice for sustainable travel. Their website declares their commitment to “finding innovative ways to reduce the impact of our services, our facilities, and our equipment” through minimizing plane emissions, waste, energy-use in their buildings, and the consumption of non-sustainable resources.
And they don’t just talk the talk—they walk the walk (or perhaps fly the flight!) When the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), put new in place regulations to maintain global emissions at the current level despite expected industry growth, Alaska Airlines committed itself to meeting these expectations. They then took it a step further and promised to reduce mainline emissions by 20% per revenue ton mile over 2009 levels before the deadline in 2020.
As a passenger, you’ll notice a few things that Alaska Air is doing to go green. They ditched straws in their eco-friendly flight service, compost their coffee grounds, and encourage customers to bring their own reusable water bottles on board with their hashtag, #FillBeforeYouFly. They are also part of Seattle Airport’s Greener Skies initiative, which uses advanced flight guidance technologies and techniques to reduce airplane emissions when descending into the airport.
2. Delta Air Lines
Delta airlines is one of the largest airline companies with the biggest service area, including 60 countries and 6 continents, so you’re sure to find a Delta flight almost anywhere you go. Their website recognizes that “jet fuel is the No. 1 contributor to our carbon footprint” and as a result, they focus their “efforts to reduce our emissions and manage our environmental impact” by updating their fleet of aircraft and buying carbon offsets.
What exactly is a carbon offset? When a person or company buys a carbon offset, it means they’re contributing to programs or initiatives that are working to reduce emissions. Carbon offsets don’t reduce your environmental impact, but they can try to make up for it. Delta invests millions of dollars each year in carbon offsets. On Earth Day in 2019, they purchased enough offsets to compensate for the air travel of more than 300,000 passengers. They also give their passengers the opportunity to buy their own.
Like Alaska Air, Delta has made some changes to its in-flight experience, as well. They have banned all single-use plastics from their service, including forks, knives, cups, wrappers, and stir sticks. They track their waste in an effort to reduce it and recycle as much as possible.
If environmental transparency is important to you, then Delta is an ideal eco-friendly airline for you. Every year, they publish an annual “Corporate Responsibility Report” that shows their water and fuel usage and charts their sustainable initiatives.
Unless you fly to Amsterdam frequently, you may not have heard of KLM. KLM is the Royal Dutch Airline, and they fly to 163 destinations worldwide, of which 76 are intercontinental and 87 are European. They partnered with Delta to introduce flights from Amsterdam to the US in cities like Atlanta, New York, and Los Angeles. While they might not have as much name recognition as the other airlines on this list, they are one of the most sustainable air travel companies around.
Like Alaska Air, KLM is committed to the ICAO 2020 deadline to reduce carbon emissions. They plan to meet this goal by improving fuel efficiencies with new aircraft designs and alternative biofuels. Since 2013, they have also significantly lowered their noise, water usage, waste production, and energy consumption.
In fact, KLM is so committed to reducing their carbon footprint that they are encouraging passengers to fly less when there are other, more sustainable travel options available. They also frequently top the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for airlines, thanks to their investments in sustainable aviation fuel and innovative aircrafts.
JetBlue is a young airline with more than 100 destinations available in North, Central, and South America. Their company age is already an advantage in the race to reduce carbon footprints because their fleet of aircraft tends to be newer and more environmentally friendly than many other airlines.
For more than a decade, JetBlue has been working with Carbonfund.org to purchase carbon offsets. During this time, they have offset more than 2.3 billion pounds of carbon. They also provide an easy-to-use carbon calculator for their customers who want to purchase their own carbon offsets to neutralize their journey’s emissions.
Their environmental efforts don’t stop once they touch the ground, though. They use alternative fuel sources for their ground equipment, like luggage belts. Their most unique eco-friendly initiative is their blue potato farm (to make their own potato chips) at New York’s JFK airport, which they claim, “serves as an agricultural and educational resource for the community.”
5. United Airlines
When flying with United Airlines, you can choose from their 78 US destinations or 111 international terminals. Environmentally conscious travelers will be happy to know that United has been working on their environmental impact for much of the last decade, with the launch of their Eco-Skies program in 2013. They have been in the news recently as one of the top eco-friendly airlines as well.
United was also one of the first eco-friendly air travel companies to embrace biofuel, which cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 60%. On a recent eco-friendly flight, named “Flight for the Planet,” United’s Boeing 737-900 used biofuel that was comprised of 30% agricultural waste. Their goal is to eventually have all of their planes powered 100% by this eco-friendly alternative. In 2018, the airline announced that they hope to cut their carbon emissions in half by 2050.
The airline works closely with their new carbon-offset provider, Conservation International (CI). Together with CI and their Eco-Skies program, they plant to offset carbon emissions by empowering people to “protect the nature that we rely on for food, fresh water and livelihoods.”
Like a few other eco-friendly airlines, they offer customers compostable dishes and utensils and recyclable cups in an effort to reduce each flight’s waste.
6. Virgin Atlantic
Virgin Atlantic is an eco-conscious option for the traveler who wants to journey to the UK, Asia, Africa, and South America. The British-based company combines in flight efforts to reduce waste with larger overarching programs to decrease their carbon footprint.
If you’re flying Virgin, you may notice that they serve sustainable, organic food and drinks on their planes. They get these products from vendors who adhere to Virgin’s “Responsible Supplier Policy,” which puts environmental standards in place to reduce waste via the supply chain.
Like other eco-conscious airlines, Virgin is focusing on biofuel research and making their planes more fuel efficient. In just a few years, they aim to have all their planes fitted with twin-engines, which use 30% less fuel than traditional ones. Their sustainability program, entitled “Change is in the Air” also pays attention to reducing aircraft noise and wasted and making ground operations more efficient.
With all these initiatives, Virgin has reduced their carbon emissions by 15%, and they help their passengers purchase carbon offsets. Want to check out the specifics of how they’re doing? Take a look at their Annual Sustainability Report.
Air Travel’s Environmental Impact
If you’re used to biking, walking, and taking public transportation in order to minimize your carbon footprint, it can be stressful to think about the negative impact of air travel. Recent studies have shown that, despite recent efforts by airlines to reduce their environmental impact, air travel is using up more carbon more quickly than experts had previously estimated. In fact, air travel is projected to eat up nearly a quarter of the planet’s carbon budget by the middle of the century.
However, frequent flyers don’t necessarily need to take up sailing like Greta Thurnberg. Overall, air travel emissions are only about 2.5% of the total CO2 emissions in the world. Passenger cars, on the other hand, emit between 10% and 15%.
The Future of Eco-Friendly Air Travel
In the past two decades, the air travel industry has changed enormously. Across the globe, even airlines that aren’t on this list are going green by using digital boarding passes, reducing onboard waste, and investing in alternative fuels. As new technological advances are made, the industry will continue to change, as will the eco-friendly travel experience for passengers.
Battery Powered Planes
In 2018, a Slovenian company took their all-electric, single-engine plane for a test flight in Australia. The test flight was a success, according to a spokesperson for Electro.Aero, the company which made the vehicle. The plane is an example of the strides that have been made recently in battery powered plane manufacturing, which some experts consider to be the future of air travel. Right now, such planes cannot fly as long or as fast as planes with traditional fuel sources, but many believe that in just two decades electric planes will be in use globally.
That’s good news for the environment because battery powered planes don’t produce emissions. Plus, they will likely be simpler and more affordable to fly and maintain than traditional planes, keeping eco-friendly air travel affordable.
Pick an Eco-Friendly Airline
The next time you head out on a vacation or a work trip, choose one of these airlines if possible. From compostable forks to advanced biofuel, airlines are making both big and little changes to help the planet. And don’t forget to see if your airline offers carbon offsets for purchase!
After you have chosen an eco-friendly airline, you can minimize your impact on the environment even more by taking a non-stop flight (which uses less fuel than a stop-over) and packing light. Bon Voyage!