Air Travel – Inconvenient Truth?

Do you recycle, drive a fuel efficient car, walk instead of drive, think about where the mango in your lunch comes from? Will you ever buy plastic straws again? Do you now pick up plastic on the beaches? If you do some or all of this, then you are prepared to change your behaviour for the sake of the environment. Well, change it to some extent.

Where does air travel fit for you, when it comes to the environment? For me, I didn’t consider the environment for several reasons:
– I have been very interested in aviation since childhood – parental responsibility.
– I love flying and my employers financed Business Class travel around the world. Just so you know, I was always grateful.
– Ever since leaving Upper Poppleton with the Lonely Planet Guide to India, I have enjoyed exploring the world.
– I have been absorbed looking out of a plane window, seeing the Red Centre, The Andes, Sydney Harbour, Paris at night, Tajikistan and the French Alps.
– Air travel meant I met Jane, travelled to Australia frequently, and lived there.
– I am an advocate of globalisation in business, technology, healthcare, well everything. Aviation enables this, because face to face is the only way to build relationships.
– Our family enjoyed a marvellous holiday in the US this summer, and to crown off the trip, flew back in the double deck Airbus A380 – Sebastian was totally pumped.


We’ve all got our reasons, and there’s no way the environment is going to stop me having fun or meeting a business contact face to face. The plane is flying there, whether I’m in it or not. It’s as routine as catching the bus. There’s no other way to get there.

I have family and friends all over the world, and air travel is, as it was for me, part of their lives.

Hey, Andrew, don’t preach to us about flying too much, just because you can’t. I won’t. I have a more interesting topic.

The experts tell us that the Maldives will be the first to disappear, when the sea level rises. Yet, we fly there for a week in polluting jets, but it’s ok because we do the carbon offset thing and give £10 to the Air France charity. The biggest joke are eco-holidays, where you eat locally produced food and see nature, or even sleep with it, suspended in a hammock.

Southwest, Ryanair and easyJet created huge short haul demand by offering very low fares. The US, Canada and Australia rely on the plane for city to city travel, and aviation exploded in India and China. Long haul holidays became more popular, because people had the money, and air travel became relatively cheaper. I’ve made the money, I’ll spend it how I like and it’s fun. It’s a free world, generally.

I wish I didn’t care about the planet etc, life would be more fun and guilt-free. Just like the 1960s.

I have been trying to come up with the right words to describe some environmental behaviour related to air travel:

– Environmental double standards.
– Selective Green.
– Cognitive dissonance.
– Environmental resignation, because there is no choice.
– Zero impact on me.

I always thought that a backwards step for the environmental movement was when you could no longer see the exhaust gases. There were four black trails of filthy exhaust out the back of a 1970s jet, which the current public couldn’t stomach.


Just because you can’t see the exhaust doesn’t mean that there is no pollution. Just check out how much fuel today’s jets carry when full. Airbus A380 – 320,000 litres of fuel and the Boeing 737 – 138,000 litres of fuel. The carbon fibre Boeing 787, seating 250-350 passengers and one of the mainstays of mid/long haul travel for the next twenty years, is 20% more efficient than the Boeing 767 of the years 1990 until today. Such improvements, while welcome, reduce fares, increase the number of destinations and traffic goes up. There are industry environmental goals, as shown below.


There are about three billion passenger journeys per year, growth is about seven percent per year, and air travel has doubled since only 1999.

It’s complicated to calculate the amount of greenhouse gases for a route, but this 30+ page document explains how. There is conventional wisdom, which says that, per person, a plane 80% full uses the same amount of fuel as a family car, with single occupancy, over 100km. Clearly a family holiday for a UK family to Florida creates more pollution than two weeks on the Devon coast.

The airlines understood the angst of a San Francisco family taking an eco vacation in unspoilt New Zealand, and of companies needing to look green as their staff fly millions of miles around the world each year. They therefore offer carbon offset programmes, with United Airlines protecting a Peruvian rainforest and Qantas the old growth forests of Tasmania, for example. It’s complete bollocks. I actually feel sorry for the pathetic passengers filling out the carbon offset website. There, there, you can sleep well as your A380 flies over the Bay of Bengal and spews out hundreds of tons of carbon dioxide. Better to say that you know you’re polluting and that you are fine with it.

The International Air Transportation Association, IATA, says that only 2% of manmade carbon dioxide emissions are produced by the sector, which is nothing compared to the benefit it brings. In the US, Europe and parts of Asia, air transport accounts for 11%. Financially poorer people can’t afford to fly, but their Bajaj rickshaw pumps out greenhouse gases. The 2% number is unrepresentative, but is trotted out across the industry.

This brings us back to the beginning. What are your environmental standards and principles? Be clear and upfront. There is a strong correlation between wealth and miles travelled by air. Those privileged to travel gain so much, but they can also give through love, song, stories, inquisitiveness and commerce. In ten years, the Bajaj driver will take a selfie in Trafalgar Square, and I can’t wait to see it. Maybe you will never fly again, have two weeks on the Costa del Sol, or enjoy a trip to the Caribbean every school holiday.

I am pro-travel. To Valentina and Sebastian – check out our world.

One last request – try and book your next flight with the most fuel-efficient plane on the route. My request to the airlines and regulators, keep on demanding more from the engine manufacturers, in line with radical improvements to aerodynamics.

If you do nothing else, please watch this five minute Hilarious movie , which nails the subject perfectly.

I almost forgot about air freight, much of which is transported at night to airports you don’t know. Next time.

Author: Andrew Knowlman

I am a 50-year old father of two children, married to Jane. I live in Hertfordshire, UK. I was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis in April 2015.

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