Air Travel's Effects on the Environment

Mike Bonesteel

When discussing transportation and the environment, one’s mind automatically jumps to discussions of automobiles. Americans are quite aware of the detrimental effects SUVs have, although many do not seem to care. What many Americans are not aware of is the fact that airplanes are just as, if not more, harmful to the environment than automobiles. This paper aims to discuss some of the environmentally harmful aspects of air travel and examine some possible solutions.


Air travel is still a booming industry. It is currently growing between 5 and 7% a year (footnote 1). The main aspect of air plane pollution is, not surprisingly, the fuel (and the resulting emissions of carbon dioxide). Jet fuel, unlike the fuel used for automobiles, is not taxed anywhere except for the Netherlands (Walljasper, 2008). Therefore there is little monetary incentive for airline industries to seek alternative methods of fueling.


In order to better understand exactly how much CO 2 is being emitted, one can use websites such as to calculate carbon emissions for a specific flight. For example, someone who attends Swarthmore College but lives in Dallas emits 1,162 lbs of CO 2 per trip, or almost 10,000 lbs per year (footnote 2). These kinds of staggering numbers prompted environmental activist Mark Lynas to warn that “We could close every factory, lock away every car and turn off every light in the country, but it won’t halt global warning if we carry on taking planes as often as we do” (Walljasper, 2008).




The fuel CO 2 emissions are not the only environmentally damaging aspect of air travel. Airplanes also emit vapor trails, also known as contrails. These contrails are composed of nitrogen dioxide and water-vapor, which traps warmth in the atmosphere and exacerbates the greenhouse effect (Innovations Report, 2005). An experiment was conducted during the 3 day air travel hiatus following September 11 th on the possible effects the absence of contrails would have on the environment. The study showed that the difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures increased by a full degree, implying that contrails stifle natural temperature deviations (Sightline, 2004).


There are some viable solutions to this air travel dilemma. Some are relatively simple, such as reducing the altitude that planes fly at. Higher altitudes cause for lower temperatures which result in more contrail damage to the environment. Other solutions are exceedingly complex and expensive, such as discovering alternative fueling methods. Current progress is being made by Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic Airways, who has invested over a billion dollars in Virgin’s Green Fund. The Fund is dedicated to investing in environmentally conscious endeavors with the ultimate goal of discovering more environmentally friendly fuel, which he plans to name “Virgin Fuel” (Virgin Green Fund, 2008).


Of course the most effective solution would be to limit air travel. But asking this would be asking citizens to give up a luxury they have become quite accommodated to. This dilemma is a microcosm of the general struggle for a cleaner environment. The opposition is similar to that of any other environmentally harmful industry: money and convenience. The airline industry controls billions and billions of dollars, and has governmental influence. Additionally, it is extremely difficult to convince someone that environmental benefits outweigh the inconvenience of riding trains in lieu of planes from Philadelphia to Dallas. While it would be nice if trains were structured so that airline and even automobile travel were not a necessity, which is not the case. Currently, the most viable option for cleaning up the airs seems to lie in Virgin Fuel, so it seems we will have to wait until the airlines are properly motivated to clean up their own act.


1 - According to

2 - Data is per passenger, not per airplane.


Works Cited

"Innovations Report." Adapting Air Travel to Ease Its Impact on the Environment. 25 Jan. 2005 <>.

"Sightline." Air Travel Heats Up the Planet. 1 Aug. 2004 <>.

Virgin Green Fund. 4 Apr. 2008 <>.

Walljasper, Jay. "Air Travel is Killing the Planet." AlterNet. 17 Oct. 2006 <>.

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last updated 4/8/08