Activists now 'flight shame,' citing jets' environmental toll. But for fuel-guzzling airlines, going green is no easy task.

Lauren Zumbach, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Business News

CHICAGO -- You can ditch your car for public transit and refill a reusable water bottle rather than buying plastic. But good luck finding a "green" substitute for an airline flight -- unless you happened to be on a particular Los Angeles-bound United Airlines flight earlier this month.

The flight out of O'Hare International Airport was on a Boeing 737 powered by a fuel mixture that was 30% biofuel and got about 81.4 mpg per passenger, 16 mpg more than United's fleetwide average.

The usual packaged stroopwafels and for-sale snack boxes in coach were replaced with free meals emphasizing relatively sustainable options. No beef was served; instead there were quinoa and kale wraps served on plates made from sugarcane, and hot beverage cups made from recycled paper.

The flight generated just 21.5 pounds of trash -- all brought onboard by the 161 passengers -- compared with the 65 pounds generated on an average flight, said United spokesman Charles Hobart.

United purchased 40 metric tons of carbon offsets to balance out the greenhouse gas emissions it wasn't able to eliminate from the flight, including those from producing and burning jet fuel.

The airline said it was a chance to fly the greenest possible flight, testing several sustainability initiatives in combination. But it's going to take a lot more to make a typical commercial flight truly green.


The aviation industry has set a goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions in half from 2005 levels by 2050, and airlines are taking a number of steps to meet that goal.

They're shifting to electric ground equipment, like the vehicles that load luggage and push the plane back before takeoff. Several carriers are replacing plastic straws and stir sticks with biodegradable versions, a change American Airlines said will eliminate more than 71,000 pounds of plastic per year. Southwest Airlines even stopped giving passengers boarding passes in paper jackets this month, a change it estimates will keep 22 million of those jackets out of trash cans.

For airlines, the move to reduce the industry's carbon footprint is not just about sustainability. Better fuel efficiency also reduces the fuel costs airlines bear. And although most passengers aren't letting guilt over their carbon footprint limit the scope of their travels, United thinks a green reputation is good for its brand.

It "builds trust and loyalty, especially in some of our new millennial customers who really see this as a benefit and an important matter going forward," CEO Oscar Munoz said at the company's annual meeting last month.


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