Truly Going Green in Air Travel

Greg Galitzine : Green Blog
Greg Galitzine
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Truly Going Green in Air Travel

I used to like flying but no longer. I now loathe even the thought of getting on a plane.

A once-great experience has been turned into, well, the most appropriately named commercial aircraft is the "Airbus", which speaks volumes for it. Namely cramming as many bodies to a hairline above the pain thresholds of most humans into a huge of hunk of material and transport them via their conveyance from Point A to Point B.

And that's without taking security into account--whose strict and now degrading and often tokenistic measures and procedures are lousy substitutes from lazy and incompetent intelligence. It is easier to force passengers to virtually strip than to gather, analyze, and most importantly act on potential threats. And yes I was there in New York City on 9-11-01 where I witnessed the attacks on the World Trade Center. And I have in my files a New York Times op-ed from July 10, 2001 written by Larry Johnson, a former State Department counterterrorism expert titled "The Declining Terrorist Threat."

On top of that, flying, like driving, wastes an awful lot of energy, eats up Earth-regenerating greenspace for massive runways and facilities and is not surprisingly a significant source of air pollution that leads to serious and deadly, and costly illnesses. Rail, buses (the highway variety), and web and videoconferencing requires fewer resources and spews less in return.

Even so, flying is a necessary evil. So I applaud efforts by the airlines, their suppliers and airports to take steps to minimize their substantial environmental footprints. I recently toured the Boeing plant in Everett, Washington that is rolling out the 787 Dreamliner with my father whom at the beginning of his career worked for Rolls Royce aero engines. He did his U.K. National Service i.e. conscription in the RAF as an aircraft mechanic, working on then-state-of-the-art turbojet engines built into Gloster Meteors and DeHavilland Vampires as well as their piston predecessors that had kept Britain free from Nazi rule in the bravely-piloted airframes of Spitfires, Hurricanes and Typhoons. 

The Dreamliner is green technology in more ways than one. It will use 20 percent less fuel for comparable missions than presently similarly sized airplane. Advanced engine technologies -from General Electric and yes, my father's old company (I saw his smile and pride as he checked over a model of one of its turbofans)--will account for eight percent of the savings. Moreover, the Dreamliner's kit-built global manufacturing and assembly--in what is the world's largest building--is amazingly efficient compared to the old-fashioned piece-by-piece construction and is well worth the visit just for the facility.

Less impressed I am with voluntary carbon offset programs like the one between Air Canada and Zerofootprint. Both firms announced an expansion of it that includes a landfill gas recovery project in Ontario that takes the methane from rotting garbage and distributes it to a nearby plant that produces recycled content paper, along with a tire recycling program in Quebec.

While laudable the problem with such programs is that they "do good to atone for doing evil". Which in one cynical sense is better than just doing evil, but the programs they support should have been funded in the first place.

Instead Air Canada should be doing more to shrink the environmental footprint it and the other air carriers create. Re-equipping their fleets with new efficient airliners like the Dreamliner for medium-long haul flights is one step. Lobbying governments for proven-effective European-styled airport-high-speed-rail (HSR) ground spokes to minimize short-haul flights (which are the big polluters and runway eaters) is another.

Canada is pathetically behind even laggard U.S. on that count. Only one airport (YVR, in Vancouver, B.C.) has a rail rapid transit link. Yet there are airports in Edmonton, Alberta, Montreal, Quebec and Toronto, Ontario that lie in a jet-fuel-whiffing range of existing HSR-candidate railroad tracks that have had intercity rail (Edmonton) or presently have higher-speed passenger train services (Montreal and Toronto, including commuter rail). There is a rail spur three rapid transit stops from the YVR terminal building that can bring travelers directly to/from the fast-growing Fraser Valley communities.

(Canada's air carriers should also tell the federal government to dump the long-proposed Pickering airport east of Toronto, a project so controversial in its environmental impacts and long out-of-date that not even Mark Holland, the Member of Parliament representing the area wants it.)

Still another step is to recycle the garbage used by passengers. The airlines are saving fuel and reducing emissions by getting rid of onboard food services. The offset is the take-on food trash. How about joint programs with the airport authorities and the concessions to use lightweight recyclable/reusable cutlery and packaging? There's a win-win (rail operators e.g. Amtrak in the U.S. and VIA in Canada should do likewise).

Here's another source of emissions that the airport authorities can mandate: low-emission/zero-emission airporter shuttle vans such as by buying and leasing them to operators to get rid of the smelly fuel-belching clunkers that prowl the terminals.

The airlines could also take a hint from JetBlue and go virtual i.e. home-based agents with their contact centers. Why waste money and energy and crap up the air in the process by providing facilities and requiring staff to commute to them?

In this fashion travel is only kept to when it is truly needed. Which is really the way to go green.


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