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Your Guide To Flying Sustainably

So, you want to take a flight somewhere, but that eco-conscious voice in your head is still asking, “Hey, is there any way we can do this without destroying the planet?” In other words, is flying sustainably even possible?

The sad truth is that at this point in time, all air travel has a considerable negative impact on the environment. The average return flight from Los Angeles to New York emits more than a ton of CO2 per passenger. According to FlyGrn’s carbon footprint calculator, that equals roughly 1700 laundry cycles or a nearly 2 year TV binge.

We’re not here to tell you to stop flying entirely. Sustainable travel can be summed up into three primary components: its environmental impact, its cultural impact, and its economic impact. Though flying’s impact on the environment is undeniably negative, those flights can transport you to places where you can make a positive impact on the rest of the world through cultural immersion and smart spending.

And by being intentional about the way you fly, you can use your power as a consumer to encourage airlines to develop more fuel-efficient fleets, offset their carbon, and prioritize sustainability across the board.

So with that said, here are some easily applicable tips for flying sustainably.

How to fly sustainably

The first piece of advice here is, when possible, don’t fly at all. Of course, a train ride from Amsterdam to Paris in lieu of a flight is more feasible than, say, an overland (and oversea) trip from Buenos Aires to Melbourne. (Though, hey, we wouldn’t fault you for trying.)

But if you must fly, start with these 6 sustainable flying practices:

  • Pack lightly as you can to reduce your contribution to the plane’s freight load.
  • Fly coach instead of business class or first class, which provide profoundly inefficient uses of cabin space.
  • Fly direct, unless completely impossible (or financially infeasible).
  • Travel “off-peak.” By flying when the skies are less crowded — think shoulder season or weekdays — your flight’s route will likely be more direct and therefore more fuel-efficient.
  • Travel slow. Instead of jamming 3 countries and 4 flights into a 2 week vacation, pick one destination, and take the time to truly get to know the area.
  • Offset your carbon, always.

What are carbon offsets?

Carbon offsets are voluntary payments that fund initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — think reforestation efforts, sustainable cookstove donations, or wind farm construction.

A carbon offset doesn’t mean a team of scientists will be reaching up into the sky and vacuuming up the CO2 that your plane emitted. Unfortunately, those emissions are here to stay. Instead, it simply means that you are paying to neutralize the environmental impact of your flight.

Some airlines offer the opportunity to offset your carbon within the booking portal, but you can also offset your carbon independently through websites like FlyGrn and Gold Standard. We encourage you to offset your carbon through websites like these that allow you to choose the specific environmental initiative that you’ll be donating to.

Which airlines are most sustainable?

Not all flights are created equal, as some airlines employ better sustainability practices than others. German green aviation nonprofit Atmosfair released an airline index in 2018, ranking the average flight efficiency of more than 125 airlines based on aircraft type, seating capacity, cargo capacity, engine, and other factors.

So what did Atmosfair find? Here’s a quick rundown:

  • LATAM Brasil ranked highest among commercial airlines worldwide, with Colombia’s Avianca coming in second among Latin American-based airlines.
  • China West Air, SunExpress, Juneyao Airlines, and Vietnam Airlines ranked highest among Asian carriers.
  • Transavia France, Air Europa, Siberia Airlines, and KLM topped European airlines.
  • The only US-based airline to qualify for Atmosfair’s Class C — representing the third highest class of efficiency — was Alaska Airlines, which is set to start using biofuel via a new partnership with Boeing.

A direct flight is always more environmentally responsible than a connecting flight, so only book flights with the most highly-ranked airlines when there isn’t a more direct option available. That said, by booking with airlines that prioritize flying sustainably, you’ll encourage other airlines to do the same.

What else can you do to fly green?

Sustainable travel — or sustainability in general — can seem unattainable. That’s why we encourage you to start with the seemingly small choices. Take public transit to the airport. Bring a refillable water bottle, and refuse the mini plastic bottles that flight attendants often hand out in the sky. Stock up on snacks from local stores before heading to the airport.

Oh, and always offset your carbon — in case we hadn’t mentioned that yet.

Conor is the founder of Hidden Lemur. He's deathly afraid of bees.

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