It may be the price of oil, more than cost to the environment, that’s driving airlines to cut emissions. But soaring demand for air travel is outstripping their best efforts.
The Skyservice Airlines Boeing 757 that regularly wings its way between Pearson Airport and the Caribbean may be 17 years old and a little rough around the rivets, but it’s a poster plane of sorts for how the airline industry is trying to clean up its act.
Last fall the aircraft was grounded two weeks for a $1-million tip lift that gave its tired old wings a jaunty, upward bend. But the move was far more than middle-aged cosmetics.
Its new “blended winglets” have proven so successful at reducing drag, the 757 has burned 360,000 litres less jet fuel since it went back to the air last Oct. 31. That’s resulted in a 900-tonne, or more than 6 per cent, reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, says Skyservice president Rob Giguere.
And the savings to Skyservice? About $50,000 a month on its jet fuel bill, which is why the airline is now planning to add winglets to the nine remaining 757s in its 20-plane fleet.
“We try to tell passengers what the winglets are all about, but it’s tough to explain,” says Giguere. “The one thing passengers will say is that they look kind of neat. That they’re an attractive addition to the airplane.
“But they’re big. Let’s just say that if you parked your car for the rest of your life, you wouldn’t save that much.”
Over a year ago, Skyservice added a state-of-the-art flight-planning system that helps pilots plot their routes along the path of least wind resistance, which has also cut fuel burn. Its planes are washed about every month and a half, which can cut 90 to 136 kilograms of grime and save 45-litres of fuel on a six-hour flight to Dublin, says Giguere. As much as possible, Skyservice’s planes taxi onto and off of runways on one engine, rather than two.
And, like at far bigger airlines around the world, everything’s up for consideration – from adding lighter-weight chairs and galleys to buying newer, more fuel-efficient aircraft. Every discretionary item that registers on a weigh scale has been on airlines’ chopping blocks, from on-board magazines and water, to ladders used by mechanics.
Air traffic control sytems have been revamped to try to cut wasteful waiting on the ground and circling in the air.
Skyservice, which flies Sunquest, Signature and Conquest passengers to the Caribbean and Europe, has been talking with those partners about carbon-offset programs to mitigate its greenhouse gases, such as the one Air Canada introduced through non-profit Zerofootprint last May. But Giguere – like many passengers – isn’t sold.
“Carbon credits are a way of making you feel better. You’re essentially saying, `We’ll put some money toward something, like planting trees, that makes up for some of the damage we’re doing.’ But you’re better off just doing less damage.”
All of the airlines’ efforts, unfortunately, are just a drop in the bucket.
According to some environmentalists, they’re being driven more by the green of making money than saving the planet, and only because oil – which accounts for a third of airlines’ costs – has skyrocketed past $100 a barrel.
“Aviation’s come very late to the climate-change debate,” says London-based environmental activist Tim Johnson, director of the Aviation Environment Federation, one of many U.K.-based groups pressing for emission caps and strict reduction targets.
He concedes that flight has become so integral to peoples’ lives now – whether it be to get to jobs, second homes or distant relatives – growth may be almost impossible to halt. The key, he says, may be forcing airlines to buy carbon credits from other sectors that achieve significant reductions, allowing them to, in essence, benefit from the good behaviour of others.
Whitby-based business consultant Bob Willard is doing what he can on his own.
“I’ve gone to three speaking tours in Australia in the last few years and after the last one, I resolved that I’m not going to go again. I’ll do them by video conference. Twenty-seven hours on a plane is bad enough, but it’s just an incredible carbon footprint. I’m trying to cut back.”
The world’s airlines – which carried some 2.2 billion passengers last year – claim they account for just 2 per cent of all man-made carbon emissions. But environmentalists argue the impact is much greater because the carbon dioxide, as well as nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides and heated water vapour, is emitted at higher altitudes where it’s more damaging.
The aviation industry has spent decades creating lighter planes and more efficient engines, but public perception remains that it’s done almost nothing, says David Longridge, a sales director for the Seattle-based Boeing aircraft company.
“You show me another industry that has reduced its noise footprint by 90 per cent and its carbon footprint by 70 per cent,” over the past 40 years, says Longridge. “We do acknowledge that there’s an impact that aviation makes and we’re not here to say, `Damn it, we’re just two per cent. Stop bugging us.’ We will never, ever stop trying to find ways to make planes burn less fuel – never – because there’s nothing more important than that.”
Hopes are being pinned on advances such as Boeing’s largely carbon-fibre 787 Dreamliner and new generation engines from General Electric due to go into service next year and cut emissions by 20 per cent. Airlines such as Virgin Atlantic are testing biofuels, which are controversial for safety reasons and because of the amount of energy and water it takes to create them.
While airlines like Air Canada, WestJet and Skyservice continue to pray for environmental salvation from aeronautics engineers, engine manufacturers and their own employee suggestion boxes, the bottom line is that the growth in demand for air travel is expected to far outstrip those gains.
The Airports Council International predicts that air travel will double and that cargo will triple by 2025, with the fastest growth coming from Asia.
In the end, there’s also one hugely inconvenient truth: Most passengers care more about cheap fares than carbon footprints and are tired of $100 fuel surcharges, airport and security taxes. Few, with the exception of some business travellers, seem keen to pay for the privilege of polluting the stratosphere.
Air Canada and WestJet have spent billions upgrading their fleets to more fuel-efficient planes, and Air Canada claims on its website that its passengers have made “a meaningful contribution to the fight against climate change” by contributing 1,460 trees to a B.C. forest restoration project. But is $116,838 in carbon offsets really “meaningful” when the airline, and its subsidiary Jazz, carries the equivalent of Canada’s population, 32 million passengers a year? And how many years will it be until those trees will really add up to taking 2,386 cars off the road for a year, as the website states?
“Offsets are not the answer,” says passenger Willard, whose speeches to business leaders focus on environmental responsibility. “I’ve been offsetting my carbon emissions for years, but about two or three years ago I woke up and said, `God, this is like lighting a candle in the church. They’re good for the conscience, but not necessarily good for the atmosphere.”
Instead, Willard has learned to walk the talk. He keeps track of his own carbon footprint. In 2006, he figures air travel accounted for 64 per cent. He hopes to get it down to 22 per cent this year.
“I’m just becoming adamant about saying, `No.’ I had a request to go to Whistler to do a one-hour talk, but I said, `This is nuts. I’ll do it by video conference or I won’t do it.’ They’re still trying to find a hotel that’s got video-conference capability.”
There’s a financial incentive to find one. Willard now charges four times as much if he has to fly.
The former IBM executive admits he’s lucky – his children and grandchildren live nearby – and that there really are no alternatives if you need to get somewhere fast or far away.
He just saw the Grand Canyon for the first time and knows that, no matter how good Google Earth gets, it can’t compare.
“If I was running an airline, I don’t know what I’d do. I applaud all their efforts. It’s just that the bigger picture is a much tougher one to fix.”