Sustainable Flying: The Airlines Going Green and How You Can Help

Most of us are becoming increasingly eco-conscious: from taking KeepCups on our coffee runs and carrying re-usable tote bags everywhere to eschewing fast fashion and going vegan.

But nothing sets our good intentions back like taking a long-haul flight. Fuel emissions and mountains of single-use plastic all contribute to making air travel one of world’s highest polluting industries, with aviation contributing around 2% of global emissions.

Fortunately, airlines are beginning to take sustainability into account. Here’s how they’re doing it – and how you can help.

Plastic-Free Flying

Etihad celebrated this year’s Earth Day by running a plastic-free flight between Abu Dhabi and Brisbane. Over 95 single-use products used onboard were replaced with environmentally friendlier options such as edible coffee cups and stainless-steel cutlery. While it was a one-off for now, Etihad has pledged to use 80% less plastic across all flights by 2022.

Meanwhile, Qantas ran a ‘zero-waste flight’ between Sydney and Adelaide in May, using exclusively reused, recycled or compostable packaging onboard. It’s just a trial for now, but Qantas plans to eliminate 100million single-use plastic items by 2020 and cut its landfill waste by 75% by the end of 2021.

The front runner, however, is Portuguese airline Hi Fly, which operated the very first single-use plastic-free flight between Lisbon and Natal last December. It hopes to be the first plastic-free airline by the end of the year.

How you can help: Onboard drinks are often served in small plastic cups and immediately collected as rubbish – just to repeat the cycle on the next drinks round. Minimise plastic waste by taking your own cup or bottle onto flights or hold onto the first cup you get and use it throughout your flight. It also pays to think twice before accepting everything thrust upon you by well-meaning flight attendants. Do you really need that single-use refreshing wipe or that plastic coffee stirrer?

Carbon Offsets

Carbon offset programmes aren’t particularly new; the first was introduced by Virgin Australia back in 2007, with Delta, Cathay Pacific and Qantas quickly following suit, but they’re still a relatively underused way of making flying greener. Carbon offset programmes fund renewable energy and conservation, and don’t add much to your overall airfare – however, Qantas estimates only around 10% of customers fly carbon neutral.

In a bid to boost these numbers, Qantas teamed up with the South Australian government to create the first carbon-neutral destination: Kangaroo Island. All QantasLink flights to and from the island are off-set by the airline, which supports new tree-planting projects.

How you can help: This one is a no-brainer: simply select the carbon offset option every time you book a flight. Qantas is even planning to offer frequent flyer points to customers who select the option in the future. But there’s so much more you can do, too. Flying direct lowers flight emissions by around 25% when compared with a stopover flight, so take the direct route wherever you can. You can also help by flying light – going carry-on-only is king.

Meat-Free Meals

Anyone who’s ever watched a Netflix documentary will know that cows are one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases. A single cow releases between 70 and 120kg of methane a year, meaning cattle farming has a devastating effect on the environment.

Virgin led the way by eliminating beef from the menu on certain flights last year, no doubt influenced by its founder Richard Branson, who gave up meat two years ago. Air New Zealand has also made its mark by serving plant-based burgers – albeit in Business Premier class only for now.

How you can help: Of course, it takes much more than going meat-free once to make a difference. However, being mindful about your choices is a great place to start. Flights will always offer vegetarian options, with vegan meals usually available to pre-order before your flight. You could even come prepared with your own veggie snacks in Tupperware, killing two birds with one stone, as it means you can refuse all those plastic-wrapped meals!

Electric Flights

Research is well underway when it comes to introducing electric planes, with experts estimating the first short-haul electric flights will debut by 2030. Hawaii-based Mokulele Airlines is reported to be testing a model hybrid on Maui routes later this year. Not only would it be a huge win for the environment, it could also mean lower operational costs, additional routes and more frequent flights.

Also interesting: Vancouver-based regional seaplane airline Harbour Air announced in March that it has plans to zero its emissions with electric aircrafts. While many airlines still face concerns that battery energy density is currently too low to support commercial flights, Harbour Air has a unique model that could make it possible for it to switch to electric far sooner than others. Its fleet of 40 propeller planes flies 500,000 passengers to 12 destinations in the Pacific Northwest every year. Incidentally, Vox reports that the current generation of battery and electric motor technology, originally developed for cars and industry, fits almost perfectly within Harbour Air’s existing operations. Handy!

How you can help: Unfortunately, it’s really a case of wait and see with this one. Unless you’re in the electric aviation trade – in that case: keep it up, you hero!


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