Rankings to help travellers uncover the world’s greenest airlines come up with very different results
Air Transat was ranked first in the Atmosfair long-haul category
Wed 13 Apr 2011 – Which airlines are the greenest? Travellers and businesses are becoming increasingly, if slowly, aware of their carbon footprint and looking to make informed decisions on the airlines they choose to fly with. Two new airline rankings have been released over the past month that set out to provide guidance but both provide contrasting results, largely due to the different methodologies they have used. German carbon offset company Atmosfair has taken payload carbon efficiency as the basis for its ranking of 130 airlines, broken down into short, medium and long haul segments. Canadian start-up consultancy Greenhorizon Aviation, on the other hand, has focused its efforts on evaluating 65 airlines based on their environmental initiatives in daily operational activities, corporate environmental management practices, and corporate policies and strategic planning. The rankings for both will surprise many.
The Atmosfair Airline Index (AAI) 2011 compares passenger airlines based on their climate efficiency when transporting payload – passengers and co-loaded freight – and assigns them a global ranking. Using methods employed by ICAO for its carbon calculator and compared on a city-pair basis, parameters include type of aircraft and engine, whether winglets are installed on aircraft, seating, cargo capacity, and passenger and co-loaded freight capacity utilisation. Apart from ICAO, data has been sourced from OAG, JP Fleet Airlines, Piano-X, IATA WATS and others, with 2009 being the source year. The scope runs to 107 types of aircraft, 308 engine types and covers 92% of all worldwide flights.
The complex methodology employed is explained in a 120-page accompanying document and the index has been reviewed and approved by university professors from different scientific areas, according to Atmosfair. Corporate clients can also obtain the index for individual routes from Atmosfair.
The underlying principle of the index is to adopt the point of view of a passenger who is not interested in what goes on behind the scenes in the aviation industry but only in the carbon footprint of his or her flight, regardless of where the passenger wants to fly and which airlines are offering that particular route.
“For air traffic, until now, there has been no ranking of airlines based on their climate efficiency,” says Dr Dietrich Brockhagen, author of AAI and CEO of Atmosfair. “Existing emissions calculation standards for flights, such as that from the UK environment ministry DEFRA, allow no differentiation among aviation companies. Other approaches, such as the emissions calculators of compensation providers or of specialised service providers from the travel industry, leave out important factors or, for lack of data, are not precise enough to allow a ranking of airlines based on climate efficiency. The Atmosfair Airline Index fills these loopholes.”
Under the Atmosfair model, airlines receive efficiency points in the ranking and they are assigned to seven efficiency classes from A to G. Only greenhouse gas emissions are included – although NOx is also incorporated through an engine factor – so factors such as noise and sustainability policies are not taken into account. As a rule of thumb, says Atmosfair, a transfer flight in efficiency class C generates more CO2 than a direct flight in efficiency class E.
The CO2 per payload kilometre for a city pair is compared with the best physically possible case (best case) and with the three times less efficient worst case. The airline which attains the best case on a city pair gets 100 efficiency points and worst zero points. All other airlines get their points on the particular city pair by linear interpolation between the two extremes. The efficiency points on all city pairs are averaged to arrive at the global efficiency points of an airline.
Low-cost airlines have been excluded from the index as they raise methodological problems for which Atmosfair has yet to find a solution. Among the issues the researchers are grappling with are the subsidies many budget airlines receive from regional airports that allow the airline to charge prices low enough to generate flights that would not be viable otherwise. Atmosfair believes there is a carbon cost to be taken into consideration. As low-cost carriers (LCCs) fly to regional airports, often many miles from city centres, there is an added ground CO2 transport factor.
“The airline index is directed at passengers. Many of them would not have flown at all had there been no budget airline,” says the methodology report. “When global warming relevance is at issue, those low-cost passengers need to first of all avoid these avoidable flights. Since from an environmental point of view, avoidance has priority over optimisation, it is difficult to include both categories of air transport suppliers in the airline index at the same level without distorting the picture.”
In its evaluation of short-haul flights (up to 800km), no airline qualified in the top two efficiency categories (A and B). The leader in Category C was Spain’s Air Europa, followed by Kingfisher Airlines (based in India) and Air New Zealand Link.
In the medium-haul index (800-3,800km), again no airline achieved the highest two classes, with Monarch Airlines (UK) taking the top spot, followed by Condor Flugdienst (Germany) and EVA Air (Taiwan). On long-haul (+3,800km), Canadian scheduled and charter carrier Air Transat was found to be the most efficient, followed by Srilankan Airlines and Alaska Air.
The overall rankings show Monarch as the most emissions efficient carrier with Condor and Air Transat second and third respectively.
According to Airfleets.net, the average age of the Monarch Airlines fleet is around 13 years and Condor’s 12.9 years. The Air Transat fleet is a particularly elderly 16.6 years, mainly due to the Airbus A310 aircraft it operates. Commenting on its top ranking in the long-haul category, Air Transat’s President and CEO, Allen Graham, said it was a vindication of various management processes and environmental initiatives the carrier had taken, including a fuel management programme and aircraft maintenance work.
This suggests running a young, more fuel-efficient fleet of aircraft is therefore not a pre-requisite for a high ranking in the Atmosfair index, but maintaining high passenger load factors is key. According to the methodology report, the load factor amounts to 48% of the total weighting of the ranking, with the type of aircraft and engine only accounting for a combined 34%.
The message is therefore clear to the green traveller concerned about his or her carbon footprint: fly with airlines that pack a lot of seats and passengers into their aircraft and put up with the comparative discomfort.
Greenhorizon Aviation’s 2010 World Airline Environmental Rankings, its first, also uses category class ratings of airline performance, but there the similarity ends of how green an airline is judged.
The company uses a “comprehensive checklist” that employs alphanumeric score methodology to rank airlines based on their environmental performance in three main categories of its Airline Environmental Management Model: daily operational activities, corporate environmental management practices, and corporate policies and strategic planning.
“The main difference between our rankings and Atmosfair’s is that they rank airlines based primarily on their CO2 emissions, and not taking into consideration any other environmental factors such as noise reduction, corporate social responsibility, biofuels and others,” observes Greenhorizon’s founder, Kharam Singh Khalsa, a recent graduate from the University of Waterloo, Ontario. “In other words, Atmosfair makes use of only the first category of the Airline Environmental Management framework – daily operational activities. It fails to consider the other two components of the model.
“Another main difference is that Atmosfair breaks down airline routes into the short-haul, medium-haul and long-haul flights, again concentrating only on CO2 emissions. We, on the other hand, provide the green consumer market with information about the overall world’s greenest airlines and this way, our ranking methodology is more comprehensive.”
Khalsa explains that under the three elements of his methodology, daily operations of an airline would include, for example, a fuel management programme in place, aircraft weight reduction incentives, flight planning optimisation, ‘greening on board’ and ground operations.
Examples of corporate environmental management practices include Corporate Social Responsibility reporting and having an Environmental Management System in place. “There are many creative opportunities for airlines to consider and implement their corporate environmental management practices,” he says.
Corporate policies and strategic planning refer to any environmental initiatives that are, or will be, examined by airline carriers in the near future. “Some of the environmental initiatives that fall under this category are fleet renewal, commute option programmes and GHG reduction goals,” adds Khalsa.
Regarding the alphanumeric class ratings, he says: “The alphabets provide insights into how ‘green' an airline is based solely on their daily operational activities, whilst the numeric percentage labels illustrate how sustainable an airline’s environmental management practices and policies are – the higher the number, the better are the environmental management practices of the particular airline.”
The Greenhorizon index has six A to F class rating categories and like the Atmosfair index, no airline makes it into the top A and B categories in the rankings. Only Copa Airlines attains a level C rating, and is therefore rated the leading airline in the overall world ranking, followed by Korean Air, Singapore Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Qantas, Virgin America, Air New Zealand, China Southern, Emirates and Japan Airlines.
Korean Air and Virgin America are the only two airlines to make it into Atmosfair’s top 20 rankings. Air Transat is listed at number 14 in the Greenhorizon world rankings.
Although the Panamanian-based Copa Airlines has a comparatively young fleet (average fleet age of under six years, according to Airfleets.net), no mention is made of environmental initiatives or a CSR policy in the business overview and strategy profile on its website.
Surprisingly, carriers such as Cathay Pacific, Finnair, Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic, which have done more than most in pursuing environmental and CSR programmes over a number of years, have ended up in the bottom class F. According to Khalsa, a number of major carriers provided little information to accurately evaluate their environmental performance and Greenhorizon relied mostly on readily available public information data. “On the other hand, these airlines carry significantly high numerical scores in the F-Class category as they promote and practice many sound environmental management initiatives,” he says.
“We want airlines to be environmentally responsible for their actions by promoting sustainable environmental management practices throughout their organisations on a regular basis. Passengers often are curious as to which are the world’s greenest airlines and our goal is to bring them just that.”
The two rankings, with their very different outcomes, demonstrate the difficulties in defining and measuring environmental performance in a manner that would help both the airline industry and the traveller.
Much of the work being carried out to ‘green’ the industry and reduce its impact on climate change is generally undertaken by the larger airlines that can afford to staff environment and CSR departments, but through the size and mix of their aircraft fleets and the type of operation, are unlikely to feature highly in an index such as Atmosfair’s. On the other hand, a smaller, tightly-run, point-to-point carrier with no environmental aspirations above improving fuel efficiency can make it to the top of a ‘green airline ranking’.
However, implementing and practicing robust environmental programmes and initiatives, as measured by Greenhorizon, combined with Atmosfair’s operational CO2 efficiency model, could together provide a more ideal airline performance ranking.