Greener Flying: How to Lower Your Carbon Footprint

Bennett Collins

There’s no such thing as carbon neutral flying, so if you fly, it’s about mitigating the damage you’re doing. The biggest way to impact the industry is to simply fly less 

All cards on the table – I am writing this article on a commercial flight in the US and I have crossed the Atlantic ocean via plane at least once a year for the past decade. In other words, I am not one to judge, nor am I one to ‘flight shame.’ However, I know that many fellow travelers, including myself, are looking to be more environmentally conscious when we choose to fly.

For many, cutting out flying altogether isn’t an option. Aviation has brought us closer to those we love, become necessary to doing some kinds of business, and made the world more culturally understanding and fluid. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do better. As the CEO of the International Air Transport Association has said, “The [aviation] sector is under considerable pressure,” and many airlines are rushing to react to the growing demand for greener air travel. 

There are steps we can take to reduce our carbon footprints if we choose to fly, ranging from the airlines to the routes we choose. But first, let’s take a look at a few of the hard realities about greener flying.

There’s No Such Thing as a Carbon Neutral Flight

I’m sorry to break the bad news to you, but there is no such thing as carbon neutral flying. The hard pill to swallow is that, no matter who you fly with, you will emit tons of CO2, ozone, and ice crystals when you fly, all of which contribute to climate change; there’s no avoiding that fact. The advice that follows here is about mitigating the damage.  

Flying Less is the Only Real Solution

Until electric or hydrogen fueled aircraft are released into the market, which aren’t expected for at least two decades, flying less is the most radical thing you can do to reduce your carbon footprint. And no, carbon offsetting schemes do not make your flight carbon neutral (more on that later).

Know the facts:

Air travel now makes up 2-3% of global CO2 emissions and the number of air travelers is set to double in the next 20 years. Following this trajectory, the aviation industry is set to be the largest CO2 emitter by the year 2050. It’s time to be more selective when we are deciding how, when, and where we fly.  

Ok, the hard truths are out of the way. Without further ado, here is a list of 10 things to factor into booking your next flight. 

Greener Airlines are Making an Effort

No airline has created a carbon neutral plane yet and until that happens, we need to vote with our dollars and support airlines moving in the right direction. The good news? There are definitely a few ‘greener airlines’.

Qantas, Emirates, and KLM are all making significant steps to reduce carbon footprints without laying the responsibility on their customers. Atmosfair, a German non-profit, has been releasing rankings of the most energy efficient airlines, and while no airlines received an ‘A’ for efficiency, there’s some good news.

Budget Airlines are Greener (for the most part)

That’s right – you can sleep a little better and also save money. Transatlantic budget airlines like Norwegian Air, Aer Lingus, and Air Transat are winning in energy efficiency, as are their regional counterparts, like RyanAir, Frontier, and Spirit airlines.

Comfort (and sometimes sanity) is obviously the sacrifice here, but there is a method to this madness. One big reason? 

Full Flights are Greener Flights

Load utilization and high rates of occupancy are very important in determining the energy efficiency of an airplane.  In other words, airlines that tightly pack with passengers, make use of space, and fill their seats have been doing it right all along, much to the chagrin of comfortable travel.

Airplane Model Affects Carbon Footprint

Airplane models make a difference in determining how carbon expensive your flight will be. Newer models of planes are more energy efficient – namely newer versions of Boeing’s 737s and Airbus’ 320/21s.

Older models are less fuel efficient, making your carbon footprint larger. The International Council on Clean Transportation found there was a 51% difference in fuel efficiency between the most and least fuel efficient fleets

That’s a big deal.

budget airlines

Tips for Greener Flying

Choose Economy Class

Flying business class is actually less energy efficient. From extra amenities, to the extra space and weight of seats, to even the smaller staff to passenger ratio, business class is not environmentally friendly.

This is also a (some may say ‘tragic’) reason why budget airlines are winning the race to energy efficiency. 

Fly Through Green Airports 

This seems silly but there are airports that are trying to reduce the carbon footprints of not only their facilities but also of their passengers.

Choosing airports that are accessible via public transportation, invest in renewable energy technology for their facilities, and use electric ground equipment does reduce your own carbon footprint. 

To Fly Greener, Pack Lighter 

This is good news for folks carrying Tortuga backpacks – taking only carry on luggage is more energy efficient for the plane. The heavier the plane is with luggage, the more fuel that is required for take-off and landing (which account for 50% of your flight’s emissions!).

Invest in Carbon Offsetting

While we wait for technological solutions to kerosene guzzling airplanes, some airlines are taking the initiative to reduce their footprints as much as possible. 

Some of the best carbon offsetting programs are found with:

  • Qantas
  • Emirates
  • Air New Zealand
  • Delta
  • Alaska Airlines offers a driving vs. flying calculator and Climate Care offers a carbon offset calculator that will tell you how much it would cost to go carbon neutral. 

Don’t Fall for ‘Greenwashing’

Be wary of carbon offsetting programs.

First of all, they do not make air travel sustainable – only carbon neutral planes will do that.

Second of all, there is not always a guarantee that the money will be used in the best way to actually offset carbon emissions. For example, tree planting programs do not necessarily promise that the trees will live in the long term.

Check Carbon Fund and Atmosfair for guides. If anything, support initiatives that invest in local renewable energy development wherever you’re going. 

Small Things Make a Difference in Greener Flying

Yes, flying has a big carbon footprint, but the smaller choices you make within your flight can and do make a difference.

  • Pack your own snacks to avoid airplane packaging
  • Bring a reusable water bottle
  • Opt for the vegetarian or vegan in-flight meals
  • Keep your ticket on your phone
  • Keeping your electronics away from airplane outlets (which just takes energy from your kerosene guzzling plane)

Each of these small choices impacts your overall carbon footprint.

Travel Overland Instead

The aviation industry was shocked when KLM, in a 100 year anniversary announcement, told its audience to ‘fly less’. It’s no secret. Trains and buses are incredibly more energy efficient than planes.

No, you can’t travel overland very easily or quickly between New York and London. But, choosing a train from London to Amsterdam is 90% more energy efficient than flying.

These are the choices that will actually make a bigger difference to carbon emissions. What’s more, treating long-distance flying like more of a special occasion, staying in locations longer, and traveling overland where you can, instead, may be the future of the travel industry. 


There’s no such thing as carbon neutral flying yet, so if you fly, it’s about mitigating the damage you’re doing. The biggest way to impact the industry is to simply fly less 

Some are better airlines than others. Choose airlines that pack their flights, use space more efficiently, and update their fleets with fuel efficient plane models

There are smaller, individual choices that can also reduce your carbon footprint. Choose economy seats over business class, try to pass through airports that seek to offset their carbon footprint, and pack lighter. 

Don’t fall for ‘greenwashing’ PR strategies. Airlines embellish their environmental records and promote carbon offsetting schemes to make their customer base feel better about flying. Think carefully about when and how you travel and make the greenest choices you can when you fly.


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