As the public conversation increasingly revolves around travel’s impact on the environment, and climate activism and awareness continues to grow, plenty of airlines are happy to throw around the word “sustainability” to grab some eco-friendly brownie points. But how many of them are actually making lasting, meaningful changes to their operating procedures? 

Airplane is about to land at the airport with some flare from the bottom view
OAG's new report examines the data behind airlines' sustainability claims © normalfx/Getty Images

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t cut and dried. In a report released on 20 February, air-travel analyst OAG looked at the data to determine just what the industry is doing to address the issue of climate change – and how travelers are responding in turn. 

Read more: Will sustainable air travel ever be possible?

Aviation accounts for 2.4% of global CO2 emissions, per the International Council on Clean Transport, but historically, that fact hasn’t done much to dull the appetite for air travel. While major global events like 9/11 and volcanic eruptions have temporarily put a damper on air traffic, it always picked back up again – often within months, but always within the next two years. But the flight-shaming phenomenon appears to be making many carriers wary, and they’re taking steps to avoid a potential public-relations nightmare – and cut fuel costs – by reducing their emissions and improving their efficiency.

Qantas is retiring its B747s in favor of Dreamliners, JetBlue is replacing its Embraer 190s with new A220 aircraft, which consume 40% less fuel, and Jetstar is introducing a new long-range A321 that uses 15% less fuel than the planes they’re replacing. “According to Airbus,” the report says, “CO2 emissions for today’s aircraft are 80% lower than they were back in 1970. Boeing claim that the B787 Dreamliner uses 20-25% less fuel on a per passenger basis than the planes it replaces.”

Other carriers have developed solutions that are more outside the box. Austrian Airlines planes taxi to the gate on a single engine, saving a yearly 11,000 tons in CO2, and the company has cut its weight onboard by “removing some newspapers, replacing carpets and life-jackets with lighter models and by removing coffee machines on board.”

The wing of a plane flying over land in China.
Many carriers are introducing newer, more fuel-efficient aircraft © MirageC/Getty Images

In another creative move, Aer Lingus reduced the amount of time its A320 fleet extend their landing lights when climbing and descending, saving 620 tons of fuel per year, while KLM reduced 11,000 tons of CO2 emissions through route optimisation and 4400 tons through weight reduction, and also introduced sustainable biofuel “which may emit 80% less CO2 compared to fossil kerosene.”

White passenger jet plane flying above the clouds.
Carbon offsets are a popular remedy, though travelers haven't completely bought in yet © Skycolors/Shutterstock

For its part, Easyjet revealed that it will soon offset carbon emissions from all flights, and that it will be working with Airbus on a joint research project on hybrid and electric aircraft. British Airways announced that it will offset emissions on all UK domestic flights as of 1 January, and Qantas is a proponent of offsets as well, giving its frequent fliers rewards for money spent accordingly. Qantas, Aer Lingus, British Airways, and Virgin Atlantic have all vowed to be carbon neutral by 2050. 

Read more: Would you pay more for a flight to help the environment?

So far, though, passengers haven’t been keen to pay an offset fee when it’s provided as an option at booking. “There is scepticism about offsetting,” the report says. “It’s another cost item in the shopping basket, being offered by a big business which may be perceived as part of the problem in the first place.” 

And carbon calculators don’t provide the full picture. “Mostly they simply take data about the distance being flown to calculate a likely fuel burn, a proxy for carbon emitted,” the report concludes. “No account is taken of the airline and whether it is an airline that has taken more measures to reduce emissions, or not. Aircraft type is also not being taken into account, yet we know that one aircraft can be massively more efficient than another. These online tools can help air travellers calculate their offsetting but can’t really do much for helping them choose between a better or worse flight, or a better or worse airline.” 

Bottom line? Passengers need better tools at their disposal to get the full scope of an airline’s practices – whether they’re truly green, or merely greenwashed. 

For the full report, visit

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