Last updated: 12:30 PM ET, Fri February 05 2016

Why More And More Airlines Are Going Green

Airlines & Airports | Josh Lew | February 05, 2016

Why More And More Airlines Are Going Green

There has been an movement over the past few years to place limits on the amount of pollution caused by commercial air travel. Certain forms of manufacturing and the practice of burning coal for power carry a larger part of the blame for poor air quality and global warming, but airlines have been singled out for their contribution to the world's carbon problem as well.

The practical reasons that airlines are going green

Actually, the industry has done a lot to make itself cleaner and greener. The changes can be seen as environmentally friendly to a certain extent, but they also have one other thing in common: they are good for airlines' bottom line.

Fuel-efficient planes are becoming more and more popular. The less fuel that these craft burn, the less carbon and other pollutants they emit. Of course, less fuel also means lower operational costs. For this reason, gas sippers are flying off the shelves. Boeing already has a record number of orders for the ultra-efficient 737 MAX, even though the plane only took its first test flight recently.

Biofuels could protect against high crude prices

The industry has also made a lot of developments with biofuels. Norway's Oslo International has even put biofuel made from camelina oil in its regular fueling hydrants. This means that planes can fill up just like they would with standard jet kerosene.  Lufthansa and SAS, both of which use biofuels on some flights, will be using Oslo's new pumps.

This kind of biofuel fueling infrastructure could become more prevalent if (when) oil prices rise again. With other sources of fuel easily accessible, airline profits won't be so closely tied to the price of crude. For environmentalists, on the other hand, biofuels represent a cleaner alternative to an industry that has been criticized for its pollution in the past.

The easyJet example

A new project by low cost carrier easyJet is the perfect illustration of this green-for-profit dynamic. An in-house design team is creating a hydrogen fuel cell that will be tested later this year. The cell will be housed in the hold of the carrier’s Airbuses. It will not help with flying at all, but it will be used to power the wheels when the aircraft is taxiing. This would allow the plane’s engines to be completely shut down while it is on the tarmac.  

The dollars and cents of this project are quite clearly defined. Taxiing takes up about four percent of easyJet’s annual fuel budget. In other words, its planes burn between $25-$35 million worth of fuel before takeoff and after landing. If the hydrogen cell idea works, that money would be saved (minus one-time testing, development and installation costs).

Of course, this would also mean that easyJet would reduce its carbon emissions by four percent. This will go a long way towards its promise of cutting emissions by seven percent by 2020. 

If environmental advocates want to push for greener planes, they should look at these past and present moves made by airlines. As long as carriers can see some benefit to their bottom line, they seem to be willing to consider adopting more green practices and features. 


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