Delta goes 'green,' but what's really being saved?

Delta has become the first U.S. airline to offer carbon offsets as an add-on to flight purchases. Now, when you book a domestic round-trip ticket on Delta.com you'll have the option to donate $5.50 ($11 for international flights) to Conservation International's Go Zero Fund. The fund offsets some of the polluting emissions released by travel and other activities by planting carbon-absorbing trees. A donation through Delta will theoretically erase at least part of the impact of pollutants released during your flights.

This is all well and good, but it appears to be more likely a move for positive press than a useful service. After all, customers must opt to add the donation to an already long list of fuel surcharges, taxes, and other fees. It's something many consumers may find appealing at first glance, but too much to ask when the final price is tallied.

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Further, the donation levels Delta offers appear to fall short of what's needed because Delta does not account for the actual miles flown. For example, using Sustainable Travel International's carbon calculator, I found you'd need to donate $23 to fully offset the impact of a round-trip New York to Los Angeles journey. If you really want to help the environment, it appears you'd be better off buying your ticket from Delta or whoever and donating to a carbon-offset program based on the number of miles you'll travel.

One interesting tidbit I found in Delta's press release touting its new program was the statement that, thanks to new fuel conservation practices, Delta apparently saved more than 25 million gallons of fuel last year. Virgin Atlantic has made similar efforts, including towing rather than taxiing planes on runways at Heathrow and Gatwick airports. To me, creating a more fuel-efficient operation seems to be a better path toward protecting the environment and potentially helping consumers save. There's less carbon to offset and less cost.

My question is, with airlines hiking prices, supposedly due to high fuel costs, did Delta pass this savings on to customers? Delta's prices haven't fallen since 2006, so I'm guessing the answer is "no." Nevertheless, fuel conservation seems to be what Delta and other airlines should really be focusing on to help the environment. However, it's more likely the other airlines will jump on the carbon-offset bandwagon before taking a serious look at the problem of fuel itself. It's an easy way to look like the good guys even though you'll be footing the bill.

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