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From packing a reusable water bottle and reef-friendly sunscreen to making an effort to use fewer plastics and eat local and fresh while abroad, there are plenty of ways travelers can cut their carbon footprint while away from home. But no matter how many carbon-neutral hotels you book or reusable cutlery you pack, the elephant in the room is that air travel is traditionally one of the least sustainable modes of transport.
You don’t have to forgo air travel entirely in order to be a more eco-minded traveler. There have been considerable developments in the commercial aviation industry that will only continue to advance. Whether it’s airlines taking pledges to become more sustainable, switching to more sustainable fuels, ordering electric jets or offering carbon offsets, it’s true that certain commercial airlines have started to claim a significant stake in making air travel less damaging to the environment.
That said, creating a sustainable aviation industry is perhaps the greatest challenge for the sector since the invention of the airplane, says former pilot and president of The Aviation Agency Bryan Del Monte. “Physics, economics and global demand for air travel present a problem that will require as much innovation to overcome as the invention of the airplane required in the first instance,” he explains.
According to Del Monte, for a true net-zero approach to air travel, planes will need to be redesigned, airports will need to be reimagined and how fuel is derived, delivered and utilized in engines will have to be reimagined.
“In some instances, there is a tendency to engage in greenwashing, but there is also widespread acceptance and genuine efforts in solving these problems,” he says. “While the challenges are daunting, it’s not beyond the industry’s grasp. If anyone can find the solutions we will need to make air travel both sustainable and a continued part of modern life, it’s the men and women who work in the aerospace and aviation industry.”
It can be difficult to sift through the airlines that are making an actual difference and those that are simply catering to eco-minded travelers looking to clear their conscience through airplane carbon offsetting schemes. We’ve put together a list of the airlines doing the best job in taking these steps to become more sustainable in the long run.
European airline EasyJet has detailed its commitment to an interim science-based climate target for 2035 with an end goal to hit net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Since 2019, the low-cost carrier is also the first and only airline in Europe to offer free carbon offsetting for passengers while publicly acknowledging that offsetting is only an interim solution to a much greater commitment to sustainable air travel. Plus, the airline has a fleet of modern, fuel-efficient planes, including Airbus neo aircraft, which are 15% more fuel efficient than older planes, on average.
How to fly with EasyJet: EasyJet is a low-cost airline in Europe, serving nearly 200 destinations across Europe and Northern Africa. You can expect to pay little for your flights, but expect to pay for extras like seat selection and checked bags.
Virgin Atlantic continues to be a leader in sustainability efforts. The British commercial airline is on track to hit net zero by 2050, thanks to a combination of ambitious innovation and transparency that includes a decade-long partnership with LanzaTech to build the first Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) plant in the United Kingdom. So far, Virgin has become the first to operate a commercial flight on waste-based fuel, and since 2019, Virgin offers a way for passengers to offset their flights. The airline has also committed to having one of the youngest and cleanest twin-engine fleets, having retired its four-engine Boeing 747s and Airbus A340s and replacing them with more fuel-efficient Boeing 787s and Airbus A350s. Currently, the average Virgin Atlantic aircraft is just 7 years old.
How to fly with Virgin Atlantic: Virgin Atlantic flies to more than 35 destinations around the world, including 12 major cities in the US. The airline is 49% owned by Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines and has partnerships in place with the airline as well as the likes of Air France, Hawaiian Airlines and KLM. You can even redeem your Delta SkyMiles to fly with Virgin Atlantic — in fact, that’s one of our favorite ways to use Delta miles. You’ll just have to pay the taxes and fees on the ticket if you choose to redeem travel rewards for a free flight.
As of 2022, KLM blends a small percentage of SAF for every flight departing from Amsterdam. In fact, the airline increased its prices based on the length of the flight and if you’re flying in economy or business class, in order to pay for the cost of SAF. KLM also works on reforestation efforts in Panama, encouraging passengers to donate money to its efforts. By 2035, KLM plans to introduce new electric- and hydrogen-powered aircraft into its fleet, and by 2050, the airline has a goal to become net zero.
“[KLM has] been developing eco-friendly fuel options since 2009, and have even completed commercial flights with biofuel,” says Struan Baird, co-founder of Luxury Scotland Tours. “Moreover, they go so far as to try and convince flyers to avoid flying whenever possible.”
How to fly with KLM: KLM serves over 140 destinations around the world via its home airport of Amsterdam (AMS). The airline does fly to several destinations in the US, including New York (JFK), Los Angeles (LAX), Washington, D.C. (IAD) and Boston (BOS), among others. The airline is part of the SkyTeam alliance, which is the same group of which Delta Air Lines is a member. Because of the partnership, you can earn and redeem Delta SkyMiles on KLM flights as well as work your way toward earning Delta elite status.
Air Canada is leading the way in its home country with an ambitious Climate Action Plan that includes committing to net-zero emissions by 2050. Currently, the airline’s newer and more energy-efficient Airbus A220 and Boeing 737 MAX narrow-body fleets average 20% less fuel consumption per seat and 50% less nitrogen oxide than its older-generation aircraft. Air Canada continues to invest in SAF and the development of other low-carbon aviation fuels (LCAF), and the airline offers passengers the option to carbon offset their flights.
Meanwhile, on its planes, Air Canada is making some sustainable decisions too. Since 2019, the airline has removed 47.8 million single-use plastic items from its planes. Plus, those in-flight amenities that often find themselves in the trash can? Air Canada has donated more than 24,000 amenity kits since 2018 as well as nearly 20,000 duvets and mattress pads since 2017.
How to fly with Air Canada: Air Canada is Canada’s largest domestic airline and serves more than 200 destinations on six continents. The Star Alliance member’s frequent flyer program, Aeroplan, is one of the better options out there, allowing you to earn and redeem points at a favorable rate. Plus, the Aeroplan program has a relatively new credit card option now available in the United States.
In October 2021, United Arab Emirates-based Etihad Airways operated its most sustainable flight ever as part of its Etihad Greenliner sustainability program. The flight saw a 72% reduction in calculated emissions, thanks to several key initiatives the airline also plans to implement in future flights, including sustainable in-flight products, better coordination with airspace management for optimized flight routing and utilizing SAF. The airline is taking its sustainability so seriously that it’s painted one of its Boeing 787 aircraft green, dubbing it the “Greenliner.”
Etihad also boasts a first-of-its-kind Corporate Conscious Choice program that rewards members for sustainable choices. Plus, the airline is dedicated to informing passengers about making more sustainable choices, including the option to carbon offset their flight as well as carrying less baggage so the aircraft can use less fuel.
How to fly with Etihad Airways: Etihad operates to more than 120 destinations around the world through its hub in Abu Dhabi. While the airline is not part of any major global airline alliance, it is partners with American Airlines, along with more than 20 additional airlines. Thanks to that partnership, you can earn and redeem American AAdvantage miles when flying with Etihad.
In the past few months, Delta has made strides in sustainable travel — both in its behind-the-scenes operations and for customers, with a strong focus on the future of sustainable travel (like hydrogen-powered aircraft). The Atlanta-based airline aims to reach net zero by 2050 by incorporating elements like a more fuel-efficient fleet — such as its new Airbus A350s — and to replace 10% of its jet fuel with SAFs by 2030. Within the airport and on its aircraft, eligible passengers will get sustainably made amenity kits from Certified B Corporation Someone Somewhere as well as plans to achieve zero-waste policies in its Sky Club lounge network.
“Delta is focused on sustainable onboard products, electrifying [our] ground services equipment, introducing sustainably sourced meals and more,” says Amelia DeLuca, VP of sustainability at Delta Air Lines. In 2020, the airline launched a new program to donate food, blankets and amenity kits to various organizations. In the past year, 2.6 million pounds of materials were donated, according to the airline.
How to fly with Delta: Delta Air Lines flies from cities around the United States to destinations around the world. And, thanks to its membership in the SkyTeam alliance, you can use Delta SkyMiles to fly with dozens of carriers around the world. The airline has a large network of credit cards with American Express that allow you to earn SkyMiles, which can then be redeemed for free flights.
You may not have heard of Widerøe before, but the Norway-based airline was named the 2022 Eco-Airline of the Year by Air Transport World — and for good reason. The regional Norwegian airline recently announced that it’s on track to have the first zero-emissions plane flying by 2026. It plans to have zero-emissions planes replace its Dash 8-100 and Dash 8-200 planes with either electric- or hydrogen-powered planes between 2030 and 2035.
The airline is committed to informing passengers how they can be more eco-conscious when flying too. From packing lighter to traveling to the airport via public transport and buying biofuels, Widerøe wants its passengers to be as eco-minded as it is.
How to fly with Widerøe: Wideroe is the largest regional airline in Norway and currently serves most airports in Norway as well as select cities in Denmark, Sweden, Germany and the United Kingdom. The airline’s partnered with Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) on all routes, but it also works with Norwegian, KLM and Air France on certain routes, the latter two of which can be useful if you’re planning to stop in Amsterdam or Paris en route to Norway.
United Airlines operated its “Flight for the Planet” in June 2019, which at the time was the most environmentally friendly flight in the history of commercial aviation. Since then, the US airline has continued to optimize its technologies and operational procedures as it works toward its 100% green by 2050 commitment. This pledge includes actionable steps like purchasing 1.5 billion gallons of SAF, investing in electric aircraft startup Heart Aerospace and the commitment to offer net-zero aircraft for commercial passengers by 2029 via its supersonic flight plans with Boom.
How to fly with United Airlines: United Airlines flies from many cities within the United States to plenty of international destinations. The airline’s MileagePlus travel rewards program allows you to earn and redeem miles for flights operated by United or any of its partners — including those partners within the Star Alliance.
Alaska Airlines is turning to new initiatives for a greener future. The airline has reduced its fuel usage by 34,000 gallons per plane each year in order to reduce emissions and its carbon footprint. It made the move by refitting its Boeing 737 aircraft with split scimitar winglets, which help the aircraft reduce fuel usage.
On its planes, Alaska also firmly embraces recycling techniques. Alaska uses boxed water instead of plastic water bottles and recyclable paper cups instead of plastic cups, and the airline prides itself on reducing plastic in all habitats and landfills.
How to fly with Alaska Airlines: Alaska Airlines services more destinations on the West Coast of the US than any other domestic airline. The carrier also flies to Mexico, Canada and several other international destinations. Alaska Airlines recently joined the Oneworld alliance, of which American Airlines is also a partner. Thanks to its fast range of partners, you can earn and redeem miles with 23 airlines, allowing you to travel to just about anywhere in the world.
According to the British Airways 2021 Sustainability Report, the flag airline of the United Kingdom has committed to a series of actionable short-, medium- and long-term plans to get to net-zero emissions by 2050 — or sooner. The carrier made news in September for its first flight powered 35% by SAF. In November, BA operated another flight between London and New York using a mix of SAF.
Plus, the airline is also updating its fleet of aircraft to meet its 2050 goal. More specifically, it’s retired its fleet of four-engine Boeing 747 aircraft, replacing them with more fuel-efficient Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 aircraft. BA has also invested in ZeroAvia, its hydrogen propulsion partner to accelerate the development of aircraft capable of running on zero-emissions hydrogen-electric power.
How to fly with British Airways: British Airways serves more than 170 destinations in 70 countries around the world. The British carrier is a member of the Oneworld alliance, which means travelers can earn and redeem Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan miles or American Airlines’ AAdvantage miles on its flights. Plus, British Airways’ own Executive Club is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Capital One, meaning you can transfer points for free flights more easily.
New York-based JetBlue has some of the most aggressive sustainability objectives in the commercial aviation industry with a series of medium- and long-term goals to get the airline to net zero by 2040. This includes a commitment to using at least 10% of total jet fuel to be from blended SAF by 2030, eliminating single-use plastic on flights and shifting all ground service equipment vehicles to electric.
At its home airport in New York (JFK), the airline offers passengers to compost their food waste in Terminal 5 through its partnership with Royal Waste Services. And, on the departure level of JFK’s Terminal 5, JetBlue has built the world’s first blue potato farm at an airport.
How to fly with JetBlue: JetBlue flies to more than 100 different destinations primarily in the United States, Canada, Mexico and select Caribbean countries. The TrueBlue frequent flyer program allows members to earn and redeem points for free flights anywhere in the JetBlue network. Plus, now that JetBlue flies nonstop between New York and London, TrueBlue members can redeem their points for a free flight to the U.K.
Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific is another industry leader in terms of actionable sustainability efforts. The airline has committed to using SAF for at least 10% of its total fuel consumption by 2030 with a greater goal of total net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Cathay Pacific has also shifted its onboard menus to focus on more sustainable ingredients. It became the first airline to serve OmniPork, a plant-based pork alternative, and it has also been serving Beyond Meat since 2018.
How to fly with Cathay Pacific: Cathay Pacific flies around the world from its home airport of Hong Kong (HKG). If you don’t have miles within Cathay Pacific’s loyalty program, don’t worry. The airline is also a member of the Oneworld alliance along with the likes of American Airlines and Alaska Airlines, so you can earn and redeem American AAdvantage miles to fly with Cathay, for example.
American Airlines is on a mission to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Among its initiatives, the airline is working to increase its fuel efficiency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and plan for a low-carbon future. More specifically, the airline has added new and more fuel-efficient aircraft to its fleet since 2013, awarding it the title as the youngest fleet among US network carriers.
In the next three years, the airline also has committed to buy 9 million gallons of SAF. Plus, through its Cool Effect program, American allows passengers to offset their carbon emissions.
How to fly with American Airlines: As the largest airline in the world, there are plenty of ways to fly with American. You can travel from its home in Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) to hundreds of destinations around the country, or venture further afield to its expansive route network around the world. By utilizing American Airlines AAdvantage miles, you can use travel rewards to fly for free with American or any of its Oneworld alliance partners.
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