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Editors' Choice Awards 2010: Most Eco-Friendly Airline

by SmarterTravel Staff
Editor's Choice Badge: Most Eco-Friendly Airline
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on May 23, 2010. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, Continental, Delta, eco travel, Virgin America.

Winner: Virgin America

Many domestic airlines make it difficult to locate any environmental policies on their websites. Which has to make you wonder: Do any such policies exist? U.S. carriers certainly have some catching up to do with airlines such as Great Britain's easyJet and Costa Rica's Nature Air, the world's first carbon-neutral airline. However, our choice for Most Eco-Friendly Airline among domestic carriers, Virgin America, is doing its part to think green and is setting an example for other U.S. carriers to follow.

It's important to realize that many cost-cutting initiatives are spun off as "environmentally friendly" practices. True, eliminating in-flight magazines, replacing airplane parts with lighter models, and flying the most direct routes help the environment, but it's hard to believe airlines would adopt these practices if it didn't also mean saving money. Carriers can't really call themselves eco-friendly if they have just one green plane, or recycle only aluminum cans. This is where Virgin America separates itself from the crowd with its integrated approach to being environmentally conscious.

Though the Virgin Group has a minimal share in Virgin America, the airline still falls under Virgin's corporate umbrella and follows its overall environmental and sustainability code. This includes donating all of the group's profits toward alternative fuel research and development. Additionally, Virgin America annually offsets its corporate carbon footprint.


Virgin America does have a distinct advantage: As a recent startup, the airline could focus on being green from the ground up. Its young fleet, with an average age of three years, consists of Airbus 319s, some of the most fuel-efficient planes in the industry, and Airbus 320s. And it is the first airline to list its carbon footprint according to internationally accepted standards via The Climate Registry. On the ground, planes minimize the use of auxiliary power units and use a single engine while taxiing, while in the air, pilots utilize advance avionics to fly more efficiently, regulate cruising speed to reduce fuel burn, and practice idle reverse landings that improve deceleration and fuel efficiency. Planes fly at optimal altitudes, using the most direct routes possible, and fly with programmed speeds when feasible.

What's it all mean? It means a Virgin America flight uses about 680 fewer pounds of carbon per passenger on the round-trip New York City to Los Angeles route than United, or around 450 fewer pounds per passenger than Delta on a Los Angeles to San Francisco round-trip flight. (Green Flight's carbon calculator is a great tool for calculating the amount of carbon per passenger on any route.)

Virgin America has never had paper manuals or in-flight magazines, it is the first commercial passenger airline to join the EPA's Climate Leaders Program, and it recycles numerous materials at its corporate headquarters. Additionally, the airline recycles waste from all flights into and out of San Francisco and Seattle, which make up 47 percent of its departures. Travelers can also offset their travel while en route via the seatback entertainment systems, and are able to order organic, sustainable, or locally produced food and beverages from the in-flight menu. Most offerings use biodegradable containers and minimal packaging. Additionally, in-air bathrooms feature environmentally-friendly soap.

When we were looking for the most eco-friendly airline, we wanted to see carriers that went beyond recycling. In addition to this practice, we looked at airlines' average fleet age and aircraft in the fleet; 2009 load factors; whether or not a carbon offset option is offered; corporate practices; investment in alternative fuels, research, and ways of preserving fuel; investment in fuel efficiency improvements; plane materials; and, finally, in-flight policies.

Honorable mentions go to Delta and Continental. While many airlines have in-flight recycling programs, Delta deserves recognition for its above-average efforts. Continental gains a nod for being the first U.S. airline to test a biofuel-powered demonstration flight and the first to launch a paperless boarding pass pilot program.

Your Turn

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See All Editors' Choice Winners

Most Customer-Friendly Airline | Best Free Airline Perk | Best Coach-Class Experience | Best Value Airline | Best Value Destination | Best Hotel Loyalty Program | Best Rental Car Loyalty Program | Best Travel Rewards Card for Domestic Use | Best Travel Rewards Card for Overseas Use | Best Travel Rewards Card for ATM Use | Best Airline Website | Best Use of Social Media | Most Pet-Friendly Airline for Checked Pets | Most Pet-Friendly Airline for Carry-On Pets | Most Eco-Friendly Airline | Best Airport for Layovers | Best Airport for Connections

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