Airlines are taking some green steps

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Airlines know there is no point denying it: They are substantial contributors to the carbon-dioxide emissions responsible for global warming.

An estimated 3 percent of emissions worldwide and 2 percent in the United States are generally attributed to airline operations. That makes the industry an easy target for those who would limit flying, or make it much more expensive, as a way to help offset aviation’s impact.

But after monitoring a series of industry initiatives this year, it looks to me as if both some individual airlines and aviation as a whole are taking seriously their responsibilities to be better, less-wasteful corporate citizens.

Among the efforts, airlines are investing in the development of aviation fuel made from renewable resources such as algae instead of petroleum. The industry is pushing for replacement of the World War II-era radar system for air-traffic control with a satellite-based system that will save fuel by enabling airlines to fly more direct routes.

The International Air Transport Association, the trade group for carriers worldwide, has called for a coordinated effort to steadily reduce airline carbon emissions, with a United Nations agency setting the standards rather than having each nation set its own rules.

For individual carriers, the latest example of the efforts came last week when Southwest Airlines staged its annual media day at its Dallas headquarters. Some other carriers, including US Airways, hold similar annual events, which are a series of briefings for reporters by airline executives about new developments at the company.

This is the first event of its kind I’ve attended at which an airline devoted several hours to detailing its “green initiatives” and to boast a little about what it’s doing to save fuel and cut its emissions.

The briefings started in a Southwest hangar, where looming over us was one of the airline’s 737 jets that has had its interior overhauled into what has been dubbed “The Green Plane.” The plane was scheduled to make its first flight last Wednesday, from Dallas to Seattle, and will move around Southwest’s route system in coming months.

While the cabin of the Green Plane looks similar to any of Southwest’s 500-plus 737s, it’s different in key ways, using lighter-weight, recyclable materials that will also help reduce fuel consumption.

On the floor of the cabin, a new type of carpeting called InterfaceFLOR is laid in squares ? with no seams showing ? so that large sections, such as the aisles that wear out first, don’t have to be completely replaced at once. When the old carpeting does need to be replaced, it’s recycled into new carpeting.

Two types of leatherlike seat covers were installed for testing, one on each side of the cabin. One side got e-Leather, which is made from recycled material discarded by the leather industry. On the other side is Izit Leather, which isn’t leather but a synthetic material that looks and feels like the real thing.

My guess is, once Southwest customers realize they’re flying on the Green Plane, they will want to move around the cabin if there’s room, trying out both types of seats. The e-Leather has a little more nub to it, and the seats are a little firmer than those covered in Izit Leather.

Southwest is also making an effort to do more recycling of all the trash that is generated on board from drinks and snacks. Already, Styrofoam coffee cups are out, replaced with paper cups.

How will you know if you’re flying on the Green Plane? There will be a card in the seat-back pocket ? it’s green ? with the headline “Doing the Right Thing.” It describes the new material used in the cabin and the airline’s other initiatives.

Of course, airlines, like other industries, will have to do more than adopt good recycling programs if they are going to really help slow down global warming. But the Southwest program looks like a good-faith effort.

Many of the world’s airlines have pages on their Web sites where you can learn more about what each one is doing. The International Air Transport Association (www.iata.org) and the U.S. equivalent, the Air Transport Association (www.airlines.org) also have lots of information on their sites.


(c) 2009, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.