Who's offering lower-carbon flight options?
For companies selling flights, we expected them to be helping customers make lower-carbon choices. We looked at what they said in their reports, and then used the websites of their biggest brands to look for a return flight from London to Edinburgh, to see what options they’d give. (NB driving distance is 414 miles, or 666 km.)
Kayak and Skyscanner were the only companies found to include any information on the carbon emissions of different options, although for Kayak this feature was not available when we searched its website using a mobile phone. None was found on Booking.com, Expedia, Lastminute.com or TUI, although they talked in their reports about the need for reducing flight emissions. Love Holidays and TripAdvisor did not even seem to acknowledge it was an issue.
Kayak's Least CO2 filter
Kayak had an image showing the five most important factors in its CO2 calculation: Flying direct, Aircraft type, Airline rating, Passenger load and Cabin class.
It stated that flying also creates non-CO2 pollutants like nitrogen oxides, ozone, soot particles, condensation trails and ice clouds that it takes into account when the plane is flying over 9000 metres where they have a more significant effect. Not all airline carbon calculators will include these additional warming effects, which can more than double the impacts.
Kayak work with Atmosfair, a climate consultation organisation, who also suggest ways to avoid the emissions in the first place. For example, have ‘a video conference instead of a business trip’, or ‘a longer vacation can take the place of two shorter ones’.
For the London to Edinburgh journey search, it suggested bus and train as the most eco-friendly options. If a trip cannot be replaced with a much lower-carbon alternative, Kayak’s FAQs say it is still worth searching for genuinely lower-carbon flights. For example, a 375 kg of difference in CO2 is the equivalent of driving a passenger car 1,500 km.
Skyscanner's Greener Choices
Skyscanner had some 6% less CO2 ‘Greener Choices’ but was a lot less convincing. “It’s our mission to lead the global transformation to modern and sustainable travel”, said the flight-search website, “we believe that travel has the power to change us. And we have the power to change travel.”
Ok, it had become a founding member of the industry-led sustainable tourism campaign “Travalyst”, along with Booking.com, Trip.com, TripAdvisor and Expedia, as well as Google and Visa. The Travalyst website stated: “Our shared goal is to make sustainability reporting – and eventually supply scoring/indexing – a core part of the consumer experience; where consistent information is published globally across all travel platforms.” It said it wanted to build on the success of Skyscanner’s Greener Choices index. But how good is Greener Choices?
Skyscanner states: “we know plane travel puts a significant strain on the environment. It's time to reconsider the choices we make when we want to fly.” But it did not offer any non-flight options even for a domestic trip from London to Edinburgh.
It stated: “We analyse the aircraft model flying the route, checking for fuel efficient engines and other modifications. We calculate emissions based on factors like distance, capacity and cruise time. Since most emissions come from take-off and landing, direct flights are often the greenest.” But it did not mention the significant additional impacts of non-CO2 emissions.
All of the options it labelled as lower carbon for our search were from EasyJet. We took a look at EasyJet’s Sustainability pages. It stated, “Since 2000, over a 20-year period, we reduced our carbon emissions per passenger, per kilometre by over one-third, and our aim is to bring this down further.”
It did list ways it had become more efficient, “having modern and fuel-efficient planes, flying them in ways which avoid noise and an unnecessary use of fuel, and flying them full of passengers.”
However, we should perhaps be wary of reductions per passenger, from a company whose turnover more than doubled in the 10 years between 2009-2019, and which has been a key player in the promotion of air travel through cheap flights.