• 06.04.09

Technology: The Wild Green Yonder

In January, Continental Airlines became the first U.S. airline to test biofuel in a jet engine. The Boeing 737 used a B50 blend of jet-A, jatropha, and algae – so it was 50 percent conventional jet fuel and 50 percent bio-oil.

In January, Continental Airlines became the first U.S. airline to test biofuel in a jet engine. The Boeing 737 used a B50 blend of jet-A, jatropha, and algae – so it was 50 percent conventional jet fuel and 50 percent bio-oil.


The key to the development of the biofuel was that the airlines and airplane manufacturers, notably Boeing, were seeking a “drop-in” replacement for current aviation fuels. The industry wanted a fuel that would require no engine, aircraft modifications, nor changes to ground operations, yet would decrease engine emissions.

While green fuel holds great promise, the airlines are also ‘sharing the love’ for flying green by giving passengers tools to gauge their size of their pollution footprint. For example, United Airlines has rolled out a so-called “carbon footprint calculator” by which fliers can measure their impact.

Where it gets interesting is that the groups which have targeted the airlines for greater green regulation seem not so interested in on-time performance, but instead in how emissions are defined as acceptable and flights as “unexcessive.” They’d rather not leave it to the airlines.

To this end, aviation consultant Robert Mann advocates scheduling shorter flights and eliminating what he calls “excess flying.” I suspect that the scheduling of flights is a discipline that’s somewhat more complex than those outside the industry would have you believe. I’d ask the question, At what point does the airlines’ need to go green conflict with their need to earn green?

Southwest Air Lines and United Airlines are already taking common-sense steps, like power-washing engines to improve fuel efficiency, but it seems that outside interest groups would like to have a say in how airlines run their business. Airlines have always been a lightning rod. Now, environmentally, they’ve become a one jolly green giant bulls eye.

While some airlines have started to provide passengers with a “carbon footprint” calculator to estimate the desired “carbon offset,” I would point out that the actual amount of carbon reduction (if any) from the wide range of offset options is, as some have reported, difficult to measure, largely unregulated, and vulnerable to misrepresentation.

Suffice it to say, the whole process of quantifying the environmental impact of flying is in its infancy. For example, I’ve read that some fliers who can afford private jet trips later claim they planted a small forest to make up for their several-hour-long Learjet outing. But what they don’t say is how long it will take for those seedlings to become large enough to actually offset the supposed impact. Who knows if all the trees survive, or how fast they grow, when they mature, and so on. It all seems like a speculative calculation; and perhaps not a calculation but more like something that defines the terms “guesstimate.”


Wired magazine took a crack at explaining offsets, but admitted, “Part of the problem is that offset costs vary widely based on which calculator you’re using to figure them out. They’re all different, which makes people wonder what’s what.” Indeed.

The reality is, there is no way yet to accurately quantify the impact of a flight and then translate that into an equal-and-opposite reaction which cancels out, or “offsets,” that impact. Offsets are just guesses, a measure of good faith, an attempt at repentance. Some have called offsets “indulgences,” the penance payments that the medieval Church sold. Let’s just say that “carbon accounting” is more art than science.

A bigger issue than the wild variation in offset formulations is the fact that, as suggested by the Wired article, most fliers have enough to deal with when they’re traveling. They don’t need the hassle of trying to figure out how to “offset” their trip. Wired writer Dave Demerjian in the last line of his story expresses disagreement with passengers who believe that it’s the job of the airlines to figure out how to fly green.

I have to say that I’m in the travelers’ corner on this one. For instance, when I need to grab a taxi I don’t style myself as an expert in judging what my impact is and which cab to hail to achieve my best green outcome. Nor do I do it with trains, buses, subways, ferries, or bicycles (yes, I’m sure some are more green than others). I think the people who are running an industry know their business well enough to hit the marks they need to hit. What a major carrier probably doesn’t need at this moment in their precarious existence is even more regulation.

As I said, the airlines’ green operations are mushrooming, while companies are sprouting up to help in that effort. I suspect the clarity we would all like to see on the footprint-and-offset question is still over the horizon. I expect we’ll soon find it there, in the wild green yonder.

Airline Futurist • Miami •