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Airlines on the (Business Class) Hot Seat Over Emissions

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Energy & Environment
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As other sectors of the global economy decarbonize, airlines are beginning to stick out like a sore thumb. Air travel is projected to account for 10 percent — or more — of greenhouse gas emissions, up from just 2 percent a few years ago. Industry leaders have been grappling with the problem for years and now it seems that a simple solution is at hand: ban business class.

Why airlines should ban business class

The latest development occurred last week, when Jozsef Varadi, CEO of Hungary’s Wizz Air, called on the global airline industry to ban business class. The ban would apply to trips of less than five hours.

On the surface, the idea makes sense. 

Carbon calculators routinely score business class emissions much higher than economy, mainly because the seats take up more space. Seats that fold down into beds are not particularly necessary on relatively short flights, which explains the focus on flights of less than five hours.

Banning business class: it’s complicated

The picture becomes more complicated when you dig into the details, however.

One problem is that eliminating business class can add more weight to an airplane, since additional people and seats would be packed into a previously underused space.

The added weight will have an impact on fuel consumption, especially during takeoffs and landings, where more fuel is used compared to cruising.

Takeoffs and landings use proportionately more fuel on shorter flights, which further dilutes the impact of banning business class on trips of less than five hours.

In a perfect world, the additional seats per plane would mean that airlines could reduce the number of flights they offer.

However, that outcome is unlikely given the rising demand for air travel.

Why businesses should ban business class

Although online carbon calculators may oversimplify the difference between business and economy carbon emissions, evidence is mounting that there is a significant difference.

Aside from fuel consumption, other business class perks involve lifecycle carbon emissions related to oversized seats, extra food and drink, special airport lounges, and other amenities.

Regardless of what airlines do to reduce these emissions, businesses can improve their own carbon footprints by switching from business class to economy.

Better yet, businesses can take steps to eliminate unnecessary air travel.

In addition to carbon emissions, air travel involves high-altitude emissions of nitrogen oxides and other greenhouse gases that linger in the upper atmosphere for longer periods of time. Switching to surface travel makes a significant difference, economy or not.

Railways are the go-to alternative for surface travel, but for some journeys even a private car can involve lower carbon emissions than air travel, whether or not it’s an electric vehicle.

Airlines on the hot seat

As for the airlines themselves, in 2016 the global aviation industry embarked on an ambitious plan aimed at carbon neutral growth after 2020.

However, the plan is on track to fall short of its goals, partly due to an over-reliance on carbon offsets.

Offsets are needed as a short-term solution while technology improvements get under way, but Popular Mechanics took a deep dive into the topic of back in 2016, and it seems that airlines have some more ‘splaining to do.

One main problem is jet engine technology itself. Jet engines largely replaced piston-powered engines more than 50 years ago, as airlines took advantage of their improved speed and power.

The trade off, unfortunately, was fuel efficiency. According to Popular Mechanics, today’s jet engines are just about as efficient as the piston engines they replaced all those years ago.

There is still some wiggle room for improvement. Aircraft redesign is also making a difference, as is the introduction of biofuels and other alternatives, including hydrogen.

The problem is that these opportunities involve a long R&D timeline, or in the case of biofuels, tradeoffs with other impacts, before they emerge into mainstream air travel.

Carbon emissions in perspective

With climate action becoming more urgent by the day, businesses can step in. Aside from reducing their own air travel, they can help raise public awareness of the role that air travel plays in an individual’s carbon footprint.

That includes economy as well as business class. Last August the BBC ran the numbers and calculated that one person flying economy from London to New York incurs the same carbon emissions as they would by living in Ghana for an entire year.

To put it another way, carbon emissions from that one flight would account for a full 11% of the yearly emissions incurred by a person living in London.

Raising awareness won’t necessarily reduce global air travel by a significant measure. However, it may help motivate businesses — and individuals — to take a fresh look at their carbon footprint and seek additional ways to offset their air travel through improvements on the ground.

The technology for making a significant difference exists right here and now.

That includes replacing older ground fleets with new electric vehicles, acquiring more renewable energy, and upgrading older buildings with new energy efficient equipment.

Here in the U.S., businesses can also work more proactively with grassroots organizations to lobby state and federal legislators to support for clean tech improvements that help reduce the use of fossil fuels across the board.

Image credit: Tim Dennert/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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