Airlines in the United States are avoiding their role in climate change by postponing meaningful action
Fri 20 Nov 2009 – As Congress considers historic climate change legislation and diplomats prepare for December’s UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, it is time that the US domestic airline industry stops trying to fly above the debate over how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While air travel only contributes 2 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the International Air Transport Association, the US aviation sector emitted 124 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents in 2003 alone – equal to a year’s worth of driving by 23 million cars. While other sectors have acknowledged their impact on the climate and revised their business plans accordingly, the domestic airline sector has in large part sought to postpone meaningful action, write Virgin America CEO David Cush (right) and Mindy Lubber of Ceres.
Airlines are part of the problem, and must be part of the solution. The first step is for the airline industry to support climate change legislation that includes measurement, reporting and accountability for air travel. Airlines must stop asking to be excused from paying their fair share and should be part of any comprehensive US climate and energy legislation.
Airlines should also accept tough new regulatory standards for more efficient aircraft fleets and welcome government-set goals for renewable fuels. The government in turn can help accelerate research and enact price supports to develop biofuels.
We must also make better use of existing technologies already in use in other nations. For example, a congressional upgrade of our ageing air traffic system with the Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen programme would effectively create HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes in the sky. More technologically advanced airliners that can be more efficiently operated should not have to wait behind older, less sophisticated jets on approach or takeoff. It is estimated that this move could save almost 1 billion gallons of fuel, cut massive amounts of CO2 emissions, and reduce delays by one-third at our nation’s most congested airports by 2018.
In addition, airlines can aggressively review every niche of their operations to reduce their impact. Common, but inconsistently used operational practices, such as the use of efficient airport ground power instead of jet-engine auxiliary power units, single-engine taxiing, reduced-power takeoffs, using electronic tablets for crew rather than paper manuals, and using idle reverse thrust on landings all save fuel and cut emissions. And small savings add up: every pound removed from an aircraft can save up to 12,000 gallons of fuel and commensurate CO2 emissions annually.
There are other, longer-term steps airlines can take to increase transparency and accountability. Last year, Virgin America became the first commercial-passenger airline to join the EPA Climate Leaders programme, which requires members to measure and report total greenhouse gas emissions. This spring, the airline achieved another industry first by listing its GHG emissions according to the internationally accepted standards of the Climate Registry.
To be clear, these are challenges for an industry already hard-hit by the economy, fuel prices and relentless competition. But the same inventive solutions that will help the environment will also help move our industry forward. Big challenges have historically propelled industries towards more innovation and greater efficiencies. As an industry, we must stop trying to downplay aviation’s impact on the environment and engage in real discussions on how we can collectively reduce our footprint in a way that makes sense for travellers, our business and the planet.
David Cush is the President and CEO of Virgin America. Mindy Lubber is President of the environmental think-tank Ceres.
This Commentary first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and GreenAir Online thanks the newspaper and Virgin America for their kind permission to republish the article.