Green Aircraft and Airlines

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) set a goal of creating a zero-emissions airplane within 50 years. The European Union plans to implement an emissions cap and trading system for airlines by 2012. But what are the airlines doing today? We've rounded up the most eco-friendly airlines and aircraft below. For comparison's sake, we've also included some of the least eco-friendly aircraft.

Continental Airlines

In the past decade, Continental Airlines has replaced most of the aircraft in its fleet with more energy-efficient planes. By installing winglets on most of its Boeing 737s and 757s, Continental has saved fuel and reduced emissions by nearly 5 percent. Also, the Houston-based airline has reduced emissions from the ground equipment at its hub by more than 75 percent since 2000. An environmental leader among the legacy carriers, Continental received an award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in April 2008 for being the first carrier to use an environmentally friendly pretreatment on its aircraft.

EasyJet

By installing new energy-efficient engines in its fleet of Airbus A319s, European low-cost carrier easyJet claims it will reduce mono-nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by 25 percent. Additionally, the new engines will reduce fuel consumption by 1 percent, which translates to a reduction of 200 tons of CO2 emissions per aircraft per year.

Lufthansa

Lufthansa plans to have 10 percent of its fuel derived from alternative sources within 12 years. Like many other airlines testing biofuels, Lufthansa aims to power its aircraft with energy derived from a sustainable source of plants or algae in combination with conventional airplane fuel.

Lufthansa forecasts that by 2020, it will have cut carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent from what they were in 2006, and it will have cut nitrogen oxide levels by 80 percent from their 2000 mark.

Virgin Atlantic

Leading the way in alternative energy for aviation, Virgin Atlantic completed the world's first flight using a biofuel-powered commercial aircraft. Virgin flew its Boeing 747-400 aircraft using 20 percent biofuel (a mixture of coconut and babassu oil) and 80 percent conventional jet fuel.

Clearly dedicated to finding a cleaner and more sustainable form of fuel, Virgin has used all of its profits since 2006 for the research and development of alternative fuels.

Airlines testing biofuels:

  • Air New Zealand
  • Continental
  • Japan Airlines (JAL)
  • JetBlue
  • Lufthansa
  • Virgin Atlantic

Which airplanes are the most energy efficient?

Determining a car's fuel efficiency is relatively straightforward and transparent. The average MPG for city and highway driving is advertised right alongside the sticker price. However, with aircraft, it is a bit more complicated. Fuel consumption varies based on aircraft speed, weight load, and wind speed, among other factors. Although this is by no means the ultimate list of the "greenest" aircraft, we've highlighted a few eco-friendly aircraft below.

Airbus A319: The A319 is 15 percent more efficient than the similarly sized Boeing 737-300.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner: The highly anticipated new Boeing aircraft will use 20 percent less fuel per passenger, will produce fewer carbon emissions, and will have quieter takeoffs and landings than comparably sized aircraft, according to Boeing. Despite numerous setbacks, the plane is set to be unveiled in the third quarter of 2009.

Bombardier CSeries: Launching in 2013, this single-aisle jet promises to "deliver dramatic energy savings," according to Bombardier.

Turboprop planes: Consuming much less fuel than standard jets, large prop planes like the Bombardier Q400, which are currently used by Alaska, Continental, Porter, and Qantas, might just be the future of short-distance air travel for cash-strapped airlines looking to cut fuel costs. However, many airlines are hesitant because the turboprops are not as fast as jet engines.

Which airplanes are the least energy efficient?

Airbus A380: Although Airbus had claimed the A380 would be the most environmentally friendly aircraft in the skies, fuel consumption was estimated for full flights on aircraft configured with many more seats than are actually in A380s today.

Emirates, Qantas, and Singapore operate A380s with approximately 450 to 490 seats. Most long-haul flights today are less than 80 percent full, so when looking at an 80 percent full Singapore Airlines A380, it will produce about 101g of CO2 emissions per passenger. For comparison, easyJet's A319s emit an average of 97.5g of CO2 per passenger.

MD-82s: Because MD-82s can last more than 30 years, most of those in the skies today are relatively old and inefficient. An MD-82 manufactured in the 1980s emits approximately 21 percent more CO2 than an Airbus A319 produced today.

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