Opinion: Why You Should Not Be Ashamed To Fly

train and jet
Credit: Amtrak (left) and joepriesaviation.net

Despite a recent record-breaking holiday travel season in the U.S., the concept of “flight-shaming” is gaining ground in Europe. Thanks to the environmental advocacy of activists such as Greta Thunberg, the public is being told to avoid airplanes and instead use mass ground transport. They are right that we need to do our share to reduce carbon emissions. It is just that choosing a train or bus ride in lieu of a flight is not always the most environmentally friendly option. 

Demonizing airlines, which provide safe and cost-efficient transport, makes little sense. From aircraft built mainly of lighter composites and ever more fuel-efficient engines to the use of sustainable aviation biofuels, the aviation industry is constantly seeking ways to improve performance. And airlines are working with agencies, such as the FAA, to design more direct and fuel-efficient flightpaths. This is simply good business, since reduced fuel consumption lowers costs as well as CO2 emissions. 

Still, it is worth asking the question: Are there viable alternatives to air travel to domestic points in the U.S.? I recently took a business trip from Washington to St. Louis by rail to put the tenets of “flight-shaming” to the test. The results were eye-opening. 

If we accept a widely cited figure that railroads output 30% less carbon per passenger-mile, we must examine the routes they take to deliver passengers to their destinations in the U.S. A train journey frequently requires in excess of 30% more miles than a flight, quickly eroding the carbon-emissions-per-passenger-mile argument. 

In this case, I took an overnight train through Chicago to get to St. Louis—a one-way trip of 1,094 mi. (1,760 km). The trip emitted 150 kg (330 lb.) of CO2 and took 28 hr., including a 5-hr. layover in Chicago. A point-to-point return flight only required 720 mi., at a cost of 114 kg of CO2, and took about 3 hr., including boarding and taxiing. So not only did the train ride take nine times longer and cost more, it produced 32% more in carbon emissions. 

This is not a criticism of Amtrak. But if we are taking trains over airplanes to save the environment, we are failing our planet miserably. 

Of course, environmentalists will argue that a high-speed rail network is friendlier to the environment. This ignores the hundreds of billions of dollars it would take to build a transcontinental high-speed rail network in the U.S., the massive carbon output required for such construction and the topographical issues and population displacement required to construct direct rail routes. 

Simply put, mass public transportation is not a viable, effective alternative to air travel in much of the U.S., particularly because the existing airport network is already in place, and the U.S. government has been working with all stakeholders in the aviation community to make air travel safer, more efficient and cleaner. 

Instead of being rewarded for providing safe, affordable and environmentally friendly air transportation, the aviation industry is under attack. Regulators are examining a mandate to remove seats to provide extra room for passengers. Such a rule threatens unintended consequences for the environment. If fewer passengers fly per aircraft, more flights will be required, leading to the production of more CO2 emissions. That kind of regulation also could lead to the elimination of marginally profitable routes that serve less populated areas and force would-be passengers to drive long distances. 

We should be working together to ensure the U.S. aviation industry can meet the ambitious goals for carbon reduction to which it has already committed. In an International Air Transport Association statement a decade ago, the aviation industry set: “three sequential goals for air transport: (1) a 1.5% average annual improvement in fuel efficiency from 2009 to 2020, (2) carbon-neutral growth from 2020 and (3) a 50% absolute reduction in carbon emissions by 2050”. We don’t take that commitment lightly. 

In the end, my isolated experiment taught me a number of lessons. Passenger rail has a place for highly traveled and shorter routes, such as in the busy Northeast Corridor connecting Washington and New York. However, air travel remains the safest, most fuel-efficient and most environmentally friendly option for much of the U.S. population. Our nation cannot afford to undermine the viability of its safest and most efficient transportation network.  

I love the Earth, and I’m certainly not ashamed to fly. Nor should anyone be.

George Novak is the president of the National Air Carrier Association.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Aviation Week.


Nice rational answer to the knee-jerk flight shame activists.
CO2 is not a pollutant. It's time to wave the BS flag.
Thank you for this eloquent article. You succinctly stated what many of us feel. May I ask where you get the figures for CO2 emissions? I'd like to do some calculations of my PA32, as well as my automobile.
Your rational and honest look at this will ensure it gets ignored by the big media outlets! It's too bad because national policy SHOULD be based on facts, rational thought, and honest cost/benefit analysis.
(I did enjoy it, BTW)
A trip from Washington to Chicago might give a different answer than one from Washington to St Louis. No question that the train is the way to go from Washington to New York and probably on to Boston and the plane is the way to go from Washington to almost anywhere else in the US. As far as convenience goes, an overnight trip from Washington or New York to Chicago might take less time away from the work day than a flight.
Where does the 30% reduction per passenger-miles comes from? The all point is based on this, but I've always heard of a much much deeper gap. Though I live in France where trains are a bit more nuclear.
Where does the 30% reduction per passenger-miles comes from? The all point is based on this, but I've always heard of a much much deeper gap. Though I live in France where trains are a bit more nuclear.
Unfortunately the US has fallen behind the rest of the world in a balanced transport system. We do need both air and ground. We live in an age where people move around a lot for business and pleasure. The disadvantage the US has over most of the world, we do not have sufficient ground transportation and the rail system we have is still use outmoded diesel trains as opposed to electrified high speed trains.
The tragedy; we do not understand and believe that we have a major shortfall.
John: Not difficult to make a rough estimate. Assume that all carbon is turned into CO2 (rather than soot or CO) and that hydrocarbon fuel is composed of two hydrogen atoms for each carbon (ignores hydrogen chain terminations, oxygenated additives and other impurities). The atomic weight of the players are 12 for carbon, 16 for oxygen and 1 for hydrogen. Thus for a pound of fuel, 10/12 is carbon or 0.83lb is carbon, 0.17lb is hydrogen. When the 0.83lb of carbon is combined with 2.21lb of oxygen, 3.04lb of CO2 is produced, along with 1.36lb of water. Gasoline has a density of about 6lb/gallon, thus for every gallon burned, approximately 18.2 lbs or CO2 is generated.
From an on-line POH for the -300, your Cherokee Six has about 1000 miles in a 84 gallon tank for about 12 MPG if flown for economy. Dividing through yields about 1.5lb CO2 per mile. With your 6 seats filled, the seat pounds/mile CO2 drops to the ~0.3lb/mile values that rail and airlines are as shown in the article.
The IPCC estimates that aviation contribute 4% to anthropogenic (human-made) global warming. 35% of the 4% is the result of CO2 emissions that mix in the atmosphere over a period of 20 years to create a "blanket" that blocks outgoing thermal radiation, thus contributing to climate warming. The industry is actively addressing this issues through the CORSIA initiative.

Interestingly, the IPCC estimates that 55% of the 4% is the result of Aircraft Induced Clouds (also known as persistent contrails). These high clouds, composed of ice crystals, also create a "blanket" that blocks outgoing thermal radiation, thus contributing to climate warming.

It turns out that on an average day only 15% of the flights in the CONUS generate Aircraft Induced Clouds. Mostly in the South-east and West coast. A small change in cruise flight level could eliminate most of the contrails. More info see https://catsr.vse.gmu.edu/pubs/TRB2020_Contrails[4].pdf
Dear George, sorry to say but I don't agree with your facts and figures. A comparable train trip in Europe emits only one third (and not 30% less as you stated) CO² of a flight, i.e. the CO²-footprint of a train trip (including all detours) versus a flight with a great circle distance of 1'000 km is two thirds smaller. For comparison:
CGN-BCN one way, by train = 26.2 kg CO², by air = 106.1 kg CO²
this still excludes the additional climate effects of other GHG emissions, especially for emissions in high altitudes (nitrogen oxides, ozone, water, soot, sulphur). http://www.ecopassenger.org/
I agree that air travel is often the only option, even within Europe with its more sophisticated rail network. But the relatively high energy consumption of air travel is a fact. In order to make air travel longer term sustainable and independent of fossil fuels, the aviation industry must innovate. We need new propulsion systems with renewable energy sources, leading to the next generation of aircraft systems.