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Flying for the Holidays? Here’s Help for Managing
the Jumbo-Sized, Carbon-Footprint Guilt

2011 December 5

The urban garden at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport provides vegetables to the airport restaurants.

By Sophia Kelley 

I usually avoid travelling for the entire time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. But this year, not only did I strap into an airplane seat in November, later this month I’m going to make the guilt-producing, carbon footprint expanding, cross-country flight to California. Despite taking public transportation to work every day, just one holiday season and it seems like I’ve undone all my good climate karma. The fact is that for those of us who don’t want to spend the holidays alone and who aren’t lucky enough to have family nearby, sometimes flying is the only option. To help my fellow airborne travelers with their jumbo-jet sized guilt, I did some research on how to minimize our environmental impacts, even while travelling in the most un-eco-friendly of ways.

Although some of the suggestions below might seem small, since almost one-quarter of all travel occurs during the holiday season, if everyone followed them, the impacts would certainly add up. 

Tips for decreasing the environmental impact of flying:

  • Use electronic tickets whenever possible and save the unnecessary paper.

    A water bottle refill station at LaGuardia keeps track of how many plastic water bottles have been eliminated by travelers who brought their own containers. The count is 23,055 and climbing.

  • Bring your own water, snacks etc. and pack them in reusable containers. Now that airlines charge for everything, this is both economically and environmentally smart. The last time I was at LaGuardia Airport, I was impressed by a water bottle refill station in one of the terminals. I hope these become more common in public places around the country.
  • Travel light. Don’t bring disposable items or things that will become waste, ask your hosts where you’re going if you need to bring shampoo and other toiletries or if they will be able to share. Alternatively, divvy up the items with your travel companions – your partner can bring the toothpaste, no need for two tubes. Packing lighter means less fuel is used and less shoulder strain too. In addition, consider giving experiences or gift cards rather than lugging a pile of presents across the country. (See our upcoming post on eco-friendly gift giving for more ideas.)
  • Go before you fly. Use the airport bathroom instead of the one on the plane. I read this tip on the Go Green Blog and though it sounds funny, according to them, the fuel for every mile-high flush could run a car for six miles.
  • Decrease your emissions getting to and from the airport. Take public transportation or carpool.
  • If you can, opt for non-stop flights and avoid flying on older, fuel-guzzling jets like first-generation 737s and MD-80s.
  • If you do have to stop over, try and have the layover be at an airport that supports recycling or other green initiatives. Chicago O’Hare recently installed an urban garden that is not only visually appealing, but also supplies vegetables to airport restaurants (just in case you didn’t follow tip #2 and forgot to bring your own snacks).
  • Review which airlines are the greenest before purchasing your tickets. Some recent sources include Trip Advisor, the Los Angeles Times, and Newsweek.
  • Hope that some time in the near future, more progress is made using biofuels in the airline industry.
  • Consider participating in a carbon offsetting program. Find out your personal carbon footprint to determine how big an impact your regular lifestyle has on climate change. You can also calculate the extra amount your flight will add to your emissions and choose to offset the carbon dioxide. Carbon offsetting neutralizes the carbon emitted when you travel from point A to point B. Offsetting is performed by organizations that channel funds to carbon-reducing projects such as tree planting or solar panel installation. Remember to investigate the plan before you purchase: check how the donations are used, if the results are guaranteed, and if there is a seal of approval. Most airlines offer options, but here are links to information from four common airline carriers: Continental, Delta, Jet Blue, Virgin Atlantic.

Do you have any suggestions for decreasing the environmental impact of airline travel? Add your tips to the comments section.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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4 Responses leave one →
  1. Brandt permalink
    December 5, 2011

    This is a great article. I always feel guilty about flying to see my family (2x in 5 weeks, usually) for the holidays (and I always have to take a connecting flight, too). Cool fact about LGA water bottle stations. They should definitely have those available in all airports, especially since we are not allowed to bring full water bottles through security.

  2. Jen permalink
    December 5, 2011

    So proud to be a native Chicagoan right now! Woot woot!

  3. December 20, 2011

    O’Hare is really trying to be green. Kudoz to my favourite airport.

  4. Jack permalink
    January 12, 2012

    I’m a frequent flyer and I always participate in a carbon offsetting program.

    Another great way to reduce waste is buying electronic tickets and doing self check in. Less waste!

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