Why Flying Is Cheaper and Greener Than Ever

In the 1960s, the air travel might have seemed a little more luxurious, but it was a pretty crummy experience in a lot of ways. Longer travel times and fewer direct flights meant aerial travel could be protracted, expensive, and really bad for the environment.

But as decades passed, we’ve seen a combination of rising oil prices, improved fuel efficiency (and technology), an increasingly crowded marketplace, and an apparent willingness to sacrifice roominess for cheaper air travel. Somewhere along the way, flying has become one of the more environmentally friendly ways to travel.

In fact, jet aircrafts today are around 70 percent more fuel-efficient than their 1960s counterparts, to the point that flying might even be greener than driving. An April 2015  eport published in the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found driving today is more “energy intensive” than flying if you consider the amount of energy needed to transport one person a given distance. The fact that today’s bustling airliners can fly dozens or even hundreds of people at a time simply outweighs the carbon footprint of trundling across the country in an automobile.

There are a lot of variables to consider, of course: People usually drive shorter distances than they fly, and the shorter the distance you fly, the more energy the plane uses per person per mile. But the study’s conclusion is still sound, and it’s not the only one to reach it.

Probably the biggest and the best known investigation is a 2013 study published in Environmental Science & Technology, which took a broader view of a vehicle’s “greenness” by looking at not just the amount of energy used but also at a range of pollutants like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and water vapor. It also measured a slew of related factors, like how long the gases remain in the atmosphere and how culpable each gas is in the onward march of climate change.

This verdict was pretty similar. After five years of research performed by 45 teams around the world, it was found that the greenest forms of travel for individuals are rail and bus, and that in the long term (think a 20-year time frame), cars contributed more to global warming than planes on a kilometer-per-passenger basis – even for trips as short as New York to Boston.

The airlines seem to be doing their part to cut down on flying’s environmental footprint. Want to do something yourself to make air travel a little greener? Check out our quick tips:

  • Planes burn through a disproportionate amount of fuel during takeoff and landing. If you can swing it, it’s a lot greener to fly non-stop.
  • Hate running through all those little plastic water bottles? Bring your own to fill up — once you’re past the TSA, of course!
  • Pack light to reduce the weight of the plane. (And avoid any potential additional baggage fees!)
  • Try to find a greener airline. Some airlines, like Southwest, have been retrofitting their planes to improve their fuel efficiency, while others are designing newer, greener planes that are in use now. A recent study by the International Council on Clean Transportation might have done the ranking for you; check out their list here.
  • Finally, remember to turn off and unplug all electronics before you leave for the airport!

Travel is no longer for the rich, it’s no longer for the childless (or petless!), and it’s certainly not for people who don’t care about the environment. Fortunately, the drive to be greener and more fuel-efficient is finally in the interests of both the consumer and the airlines themselves. Time to get flying!

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