The energy efficiency of commercial airlines

Commercial flying remains one of the most intense greenhouse gas emitting activities and one with few alternatives in terms of reducing the carbon footprint. I think we’re a ways away from electric or solar powered commercial planes. Air travel accounts for 2 percent of global carbon emissions but is rapidly increasing as travel becomes easier, cheaper, more common. Figures indicate emissions will be up 70 percent from 2005 to 2020.

The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) has actually run its own analysis comparing the fuel use of various airlines. Alaska Airlines and Spirit Airlines came in as the least fuel efficient and American Airlines and Allegiant came in as most fuel efficient. I was recently on a United Airlines flight from JFK to LAX and United showed a promotional video about how the company was going green. It continues to amaze me how important being viewed as green is becoming to major brands.

The reality is that while some airlines can distinguish themselves marginally with newer engines, operational procedures and wing design, these are small improvements. The one actual game changer in air travel could be biofuels. It’s still very expensive and not really commercially available but for sectors like the airlines which have no alternatives to petroleum, it’s the eco solution with the most impact.

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Adam Lesser

Cleantech Curator Gigaom Research

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