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Tips for Sustainable Air Travel in 2020

Updated: Jun 23

International borders are opening up as the world prepares to welcome tourists again. For some, leisure trips may not be in the immediate plans, others have long-awaited the day when we can traverse the world once again. As we wearily come out of our shells in the coming months, knowing how to travel safely and responsibly should remain at the forefront of our minds.

When I first started writing this post, the intent was to write about tips for sustainable travel as a whole. As I got into my research, however, I quickly realized how much information there is to share. Hence, I decided to make this a four-part series divided into the following topics: air travel, local transportation & accommodations, sustainable travel products and eco-friendly choices while travelling.


Before we get started, let's get something straight. Sustainable travel isn't only about carrying a reusable water bottle and avoiding plastic bags. Sustainable tourism, by definition, is the intent of travelling to create a positive impact on a destination's environment, society and economy. In practice, it is making conscious decisions on modes of transportation, being aware of where your money on accommodations, dining, shops and entertainment go. It also encompasses being an observer of the local culture, traditions and natural settings. To be a sustainable traveller is to understand how your actions impact the world around you.

Read on for part one of the Tips for Sustainable Travel in 2020 series: air travel.


It's important to discuss this topic as travel and flying are practically synonymous. When discussing sustainability in travel, the aviation industry faces a lot of backlash as one of the largest contributors to global carbon emissions. Air travel accounts for 2.5% of the world's CO2 emissions. With its rapid growth, this number could take up to a quarter of the earth's "carbon budget" by 2050. Although great strides have been made in making air travel more efficient, the increase in travel each year surpasses the speed of green technology. Flying may be inevitable in some cases, but there are many ways to minimize its harmful effects.

1. Bring Your Own Reusable Mask

With the risks of COVID-19 still high, masks are mandatory in-flight with most airlines. Single-use masks are available at airports but opt to carry your own reusable ones to reduce waste (and limit the spread of germs).

Masks are encouraged to be worn in all public spaces where physical distancing is difficult. When travelling in high traffic areas, having a few of these within easy access to alternate between washes is quite handy.

2. Take Recyclable Trash With You

To limit contact with passengers, airlines have implemented new safety measures. Air Canada, for example, recently introduced disposable Customer Care Kits (includes a complimentary mask, gloves, bottled water, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, headset, and snack). While a lot of these items contain plastic, a lot can be recycled - or avoided.

Sadly, only up to 50% of domestic items onboard end up being recycled, the number is even less for international routes. This is not unusual as Air Canada states, among themselves, "many transport carriers are actually not permitted to recycle from international destinations due to risk of contamination from foreign foods and plant-born vectors."

The workaround? Take your recyclables with you to dispose of properly at the nearest recycling bin.

3. Carbon Offset Your Flight

When purchasing your flight, most airlines now offer the option to carbon offset your trip at check-out. This means paying a nominal fee to fund certified climate projects to neutralize the carbon emissions from your flight using a carbon footprint calculator. You can also do this after the fact with sites like Offsetters. From such sites, you can directly contribute to projects supporting sustainable developments.

You don't have to stop there, you can offset all your lifestyle choices. Tentree offers Climate+ packages neutralizing emissions for things like a lifetime of smartphones, binge-watching your favourite shows, food delivery, long showers, and more.

4. Fly With Airlines Using Renewable Biofuel

Biofuel is a relatively new resource, introduced to commercial aviation in 2008. Biofuel is considered a renewable source of energy as it is compromised of plant or algae material or animal waste. It is more expensive to produce than traditional fuels (up to four times as much) but is said to contribute very little to global warming and climate change.

Currently, no Canadian airlines are using biofuel, but you can find a list of those who do via Alternative Airlines. Aviation biofuel suppliers say using renewable fuels can cut the carbon footprint of air travel by 80%.

5. Pack Light

Similar to cars, the heavier the load, the more fuel is burned to operate. How often when packing for a trip, do you include "just in case" items? Extra pairs of shoes or sets of clothes? Now multiply this by the number of passengers on the flight. It can add up quite quickly. By reducing baggage weight, it can help reduce the amount of fuel required. This becomes a win on two fronts: fewer carbon emissions being expended in-flight and saving on the mining of natural resources to create the fuel.

6. Fly Direct

The most fuel is burned during takeoff and landing, including the amount of time spent taxiing to a gate. This means flying direct is more cost-efficient than connecting routes.

This is true to a certain degree, however. For long-haul flights where larger aircraft are required to carry more fuel, the additional weight also means extra fuel is needed to operate. Above a certain distance, it becomes more fuel-efficient to make a halfway stop to refuel, despite the energy losses in descent and climb. For example, a Boeing 777-300 reaches that point at 3,000 nautical miles (5,600 km). It is more fuel-efficient to fly direct at less than this distance and to make a stop for longer routes.

7. Fly Budget Airlines

Low-cost carriers are notorious for their no-frills service, from charging baggage fees to snacks and drinks onboard. What many travellers don't realize is by cost-cutting at every corner, they end up being more environmentally friendly than their higher-cost counterparts.

Budget airlines have a larger passenger capacity due to lower fares and cozier seating arrangements. Carrying more passengers per flight means a lower CO2 emission per traveller. By not offering free food and drinks onboard, less weight is required to carry all the amenities which also means less waste.

8. Don't Fly First Class

In relation to the previous tip, flying in Business or First class is the opposite experience of low-cost carriers. Although it may seem like a no-brainer, it deserves its own point.

Not only do these cabins take up more space, but passengers consume more onboard with all the included comforts and amenities. First class passengers are given double the standard baggage allowance as well. The first class section of a plane is also always heavier, and we know the detriments of weight to an aircraft.

Conclusion: Can flying ever be sustainable?

In current conditions, the short answer is no. The most sustainable choice would be to opt-out of air travel as a whole (if you can).

Most recently, when climate activist Greta Thunberg expressed her refusal to fly and to instead, take a sailing yacht to the U.N. Climate Summit - it sparked worldwide conversations surrounding the environmental impact of air travel. While her case makes a statement, not many can afford the time to substitute a multi-hour flight with a two-week-long sailing.

What can you do instead? Being mindful of your choices in travel and understanding its impact is a start. Practicing the tips mentioned above is another great way to help. Advocating for improvements in aircraft efficiency and lobbying for stricter regulations on travel suppliers and government legislation is even better. Check out this CBC article for more ways to fight for a greener aviation industry.


How feasible are these tips to implement on your next trip? Do you have any of your own tips to add to the list? Comment below with your thoughts and/or suggestions.


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