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How Airlines Are Incorporating Green Initiatives

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Flight has made travel accessible to nearly everyone in the United States. It's affordable and fast, replacing the family road trip of weeks with a few hours to nearly any destination in the world. On the other hand, accessibility comes at a price. The aviation industry causes about 5 percent of global warming, leading to what has been termed "flight shaming." Flight shaming is the negative reaction to flight, accusing fliers of wasting resources and being part of the problem, rather than the solution. The fact is, only about 3 percent of the entire global population flies regularly, so if you're not flying regularly, it doesn't make sense to forgo that once-in-a-lifetime trip to Fiji, or feel bad about it.

That doesn't mean that the airlines are ignoring their role in saving the planet. They are introducing initiatives that will reduce plastic use, reduce reliance on fossil fuels, and provide more eco-friendly options gate to gate.

Reducing Plastic Use

When you Google "what human activity uses the most water" airlines won't be at the top of the list, but they sure have handed out a lot of bottled water over the years. PET plastic water bottles are extruded polyester made from crude oil and natural gas. While PET manufacturers tout the 100 percent recyclability of the plastic, only about 4 percent of the bottles are ever used to make new bottles. Instead, Americans use about 15 million barrels of oil worth of new plastic bottles every year. Airlines are doing their part to reverse this trend by offering water in aluminum cans or boxed water.

They are also taking additional steps beyond removing plastic water bottles. Some airlines have removed all single-use plastic from their flights. Etihad Airways of the United Arab Emirates offers edible coffee cups and Hi Fly airlines from Portugal has replaced plastic cutlery with lightweight bamboo silverware. These are only two of the airlines that are reviewing in-flight offerings to reduce single-use plastic wherever possible.

Optimizing and Changing Fuel Usage

While reducing waste is important, and ultimately ties back to fossil fuels, when most people think of the environmental cost of flight, they are thinking of the fuel that jets use every day. Airlines are tackling this problem through a two-prong approach: optimization of fuel use and increasing reliance on alternate fuel sources. Artificial intelligence is leading the way in optimizing fuel use. AI helps airlines establish needed routes, but also cut excess routes or flights which are less than full. AI is also used to route flights in the most efficient way possible, replacing spreadsheets and manual labor with automated solutions that take a fraction of the time.
Beyond optimizing routes, new types of fuel are becoming more common. In 2019, United Airlines flew with a 30/70 blend of biofuel and traditional jet fuel for the first time. Airlines are exploring fuel made from food waste, old wood, corn, even human waste has the potential to fuel flight. While today's technology doesn't allow for a completely jet fuel-free flight, change is happening so rapidly that it won't be long before that day comes.

Changing Food Service

Finally, another in-cabin change is in the way food is sourced for flights. In the winter, much of the lettuce for the whole world comes from Arizona and California. Airlines like Singapore Airlines are changing the farm-to-table concept into a farm-to-plane model to overcome the cash and environmental cost of transporting food. It's expensive and wasteful to ship basic food staples across the country. Singapore Airlines has worked with a vertical farming company in Newark to provide food for its 19-hour flight from New Jersey to Singapore. They're able to provide fresh food that's grown just miles from the airport. Their model brings the farmers' market to the airport. While they're the first to explore this concept, it seems likely to catch on. Overall, green initiatives like these not only make flying more sustainable, they make it guilt-free.

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