How to Fly Without Guilt

Or, at least not more than you can carry on

Photo by Ross Parmly on Unsplash

I love travel. There’s nothing like getting my feet on the ground someplace that is distant from my daily environs, whether geographically or culturally or both, to recharge my sense of wonder and bring home to me what a spectacular and multifaceted little gem of a planet we all share.

When home, I live in the western U.S.A. where cities are spread across vast stretches of land. Train service, compared to the East, is comparatively spotty and clumsy.

Add to that the fact that my adult children live four states away. Also, one of them is a pilot for a major airline.

So I fly. Not terrifically often, and rarely for work these days, but at least every couple of months. And while I am as alarmed as any thinking person should be about our heading collectively toward the tipping point of climate chaos, I keep boarding planes.

I regard airplanes as everyday miracles. How it is that a monstrously heavy metal tube, full of people and luggage and pretzels, can lift off the ground at all is something that quietly astounds me — every time I think about it, while I’m ignoring the flight attendant’s ritual recitation of the safety instructions.

And sometimes, when I catch myself feeling bored on a flight or irritated that my seat back won’t recline more than an inch, I remind myself that I am sitting in an armchair 30,000 feet above the ground, moving at hundreds of miles an hour.

Little old middle-class, risk-averse me is thus able to experience parts of the world that until the last century would have taken weeks or months to reach, and many of which were off-limits to all but the extremely hardy or the fabulously wealthy. And my kids and I can visit each other.

But there’s a dark side to the magic of human flight. It takes a whole lot of energy to get a plane airborne, loft it up and over a mountain range or a continent or an ocean, and set it back down where you can text your Lyft driver. If you fly at all, there’s no getting around the fact that by doing so you’re making a significant contribution to the gases that are warming our planet so disastrously.

So, how to square your love of/need for air travel with your nagging environmental conscience? It may not be possible to entirely erase your stinky carbon footprint, but there are ways to lighten its effect.

1. Travel light

Beyond saving you the exquisite torture of waiting for your bag to be hurled forth onto the carousel of checked luggage, lightening up your load means a lighter plane. And lighter planes take less fuel. It’s as simple as that. Roll up your multi-purpose clothing and find a pair of shoes that will work for your whole trip, and enjoy.

2. Fly economy

Not to be crude, but the more butts an airplane can fit inside itself, the less fuel it has to use per buttload. I know what you’re thinking: the first-class compartment is going with the rest of the plane anyway, so how does my wadding myself into a cramped seat help anything?

Yes, it would be lovely to stretch out on one of those decadent in-flight beds, or at least to pop for business class, but doing so only creates more demand for fewer seats and thus less fuel efficiency. Cozy up to your fellow travelers and tough it out. You’re experiencing a miracle, remember?

3. Choose your airline with the Earth in mind

I’m not going to name names here, but when it comes to fuel efficiency and sustainability, there are airlines and then there are airlines. A German organization, atmosfair, provides an index of the 200 largest airlines ranked according to their carbon efficiency. It’s worth considering the carbon cost of your trip: sometimes the cheapest ticket isn’t really cheap, you know what I mean?

Some airlines, like United, are using biofuels for at least some of their flights, and that’s a good thing to encourage.

Also, United is one of several carriers that have programs that allow you to make charitable donations to organizations that conduct carbon reduction projects, like planting trees in Peru, when you book your ticket. It’s another good thing to encourage.

Which leads us to the next tip:

4. Purchase offsets

Again, some airlines make it possible for you to purchase carbon offsets when you book your ticket, though you may have to do some digging and extra clicking. You can also check websites such as Carbonfund.org that allow you to calculate the carbon load of your trip and figure out how to mitigate it by making a targeted purchase or donation.

No, you don’t have to shell out the same amount you did for your ticket. For a round trip flight across the U.S., you’re looking at maybe $10 to $12.

5. Don’t be that tourist

Bring along a reusable water bottle (filled, of course, after you’ve cleared security) and eschew the little plastic cups on board. Favor hotels that have wall-mounted shampoo and shower gel dispensers instead of those horrid teensy bottles that each hold about one morning’s worth of ablutions before becoming part of a gigantic floating island of plastic waste somewhere in our oceans. There are many things you can do to lighten your impact once you get where you’re going. So do them.

Be at least as respectful of the country or region where you’re a guest as you would be if you were staying at your in-laws’ house for the holidays. Maybe more respectful than that.

None of these methods are all that heroic or dramatic or particularly sacrificial. But if we all did them each time we traveled by air, it would make a difference.

After all, whether in the air or on the ground, we’re all in this together. Safe travels, my friend.

3 Replies to “How to Fly Without Guilt”

  1. Laurie

    Thanks for the great tips, Jan. As a more frequent flyer now that I am retired, I want to do all I can to minimize my impact on the planet. We just booked a trip (to Morocco and Portugal) through TAP, the Portuguese airline, and they allow you to purchase carbon offsets. I never heard of that before, but I think it’s a great idea.

    • Jan M Flynn Post author

      Wow, Morocco and Portugal — that sounds like a FABULOUS trip! Enjoy, and kudos to TAP for their offset program.

  2. Hannah Celeste

    Great post, thank you for sharing your perspective. I share similar guilt over flying – the links to atmosfair are so incredibly helpful!

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