By David Cush and Mindy Lubber
As the Congress considers historic climate change legislation and diplomats prepare for December’s U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, it is time that the domestic airline industry stops trying to fly above the debate over how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
While air travel only contributes 2 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the International Air Transport Association, the U.S. aviation sector emitted 124 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents in 2003 alone — equal to a year’s worth of driving by 23 million cars.
Other sectors have acknowledged their impact on the climate and revised their business plans accordingly, but the domestic airline industry has in large part sought to postpone meaningful action.
Airlines are part of the problem, and they must be part of the solution.
The first step is for the airline industry to support climate change legislation that includes measurement, reporting and accountability for air travel. Airlines must stop asking to be excused from paying their fair share and should be part of any comprehensive U.S. climate and energy legislation.
Airlines should also accept tough new regulatory standards for more efficient aircraft fleets and welcome government-set goals for renewable fuels. The government in turn can help accelerate research and enact price supports to develop biofuels.
We must also make better use of existing technologies already in use in other nations.
For example, a congressional upgrade of our aging air-traffic system with the Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen program would effectively create HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes in the sky. More technologically advanced airliners that can be more efficiently operated should not have to wait behind older, less sophisticated jets on approach or takeoff.
It is estimated that this move could save almost 1 billion gallons of fuel, cut massive amounts of CO2 emissions, and reduce delays by one-third at our nation’s most congested airports by 2018.
In addition, airlines can aggressively review every niche of their operations to reduce their impact. Common but inconsistently used operational practices, such as the use of efficient airport ground power instead of jet-engine auxiliary power units, single-engine taxiing, reduced-power takeoffs, using electronic tablets for crew rather than paper manuals, and using idle reverse thrust on landings all save fuel and cut emissions.
Small savings add up: Every pound removed from an aircraft can save up to 12,000 gallons of fuel and commensurate CO2 emissions annually.
There are other, longer-term steps airlines can take to increase transparency and accountability. Last year, Virgin America became the first commercial-passenger airline to join the EPA Climate Leaders program, which requires members to measure and report total greenhouse gas emissions. This spring, the airline achieved another industry first by listing its greenhouse gas emissions according to the internationally accepted standards of the Climate Registry.
To be clear, these are challenges for an industry already hard-hit by the economy, fuel prices and relentless competition. But the same inventive solutions that will help the environment will also help move our industry forward.
Big challenges have historically propelled industries toward more innovation and greater efficiencies. As an industry, we must stop trying to downplay aviation’s impact on the environment and engage in real discussions on how we can collectively reduce our footprint in a way that makes sense for travelers, our business and the planet.
(Chart: Airline Transport Association)
David Cush is president and CEO of Virgin America, and Mindy Lubber is president of Ceres, a coalition of institutional investors, environmental organizations and other public interest groups.