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Eco Etiquette: What's The Latest On Eco-Friendly Air Travel?

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Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

Has there been any progress regarding more eco-friendly air travel? It seems like there was talk for awhile about using biofuels, but what's the latest? I have to take a lot of flights this summer, and I'm feeling mighty guilty about all those carbon emissions.

-Sam

Forget the carbon emissions for a second. With the news this week that airlines will start charging families extra to sit together, I may finally give up on air travel altogether. I mean seriously, how much more inane can all these surcharges get? If I have the choice, I'll take my hybrid car and a stretch of open road and a trunk where I can toss in my bag without having to stuff it first in a carry-on sizer, thank you very much.

In the modern world, though, most of us can't completely avoid flying. There are business trips (though telecommuting is finally becoming a more feasible option); can't-miss destination weddings; and family in far-flung places. My brother lives in Boston, and I'm probably not going to set off from Los Angeles for a cross-country road trip with my screaming toddler anytime soon.

So back to those carbon emissions: Until bio-based jet fuels become not only cost effective, but truly sustainable (greenhouse gases associated with production and food security issues have hampered progress), eco air travel will continue to be an oxymoron.

The good news is that the aviation industry is investing heavily in green fuel research. In fact, you may have already flown on a French fry oil flight and not even known it: To date, more than 1,500 passenger flights have tested advanced biofuels.

Now, the bad news: Experts say more widespread use of plant-based fuels in commercial aircraft is still several years away. And it may take even longer than that, given Congress's recent decision to effectively ban the military from using biofuels.

The issue, at least superficially, is cost: The Republican-led House Armed Services Committee has dictated that the Defense Department cannot purchase alternative fuels that are priced higher than "a traditional fossil fuel." (Though rather shamelessly, exemptions have been made for coal and natural gas.) But the real cost here will be progress: The US military has paved the way for advances in the commercial aviation industry with its early adoption and testing of biofuels. If these military programs are no longer, who knows to what extent the entire industry will be stymied?

Biofuels (sadly) aside, there are new plane designs that may offer some hope for the environment: Southwest Airline's new cabin interior features recyclable carpet, as well as lighter seats made with eco-friendly materials. Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner uses lighter materials and a more aerodynamic design to achieve a 20 percent jump in fuel efficiency, though you'll have to catch it on a flight from Denver to Tokyo. In 2013.

So for now, if it's a vacation you're planning, I urge you to first consider a regional road trip via hybrid or rail over a far-flown locale. A family of four traveling in a Prius from Los Angeles to San Francisco, for instance, will expend 50 kilograms of CO2 each way; fly that same family to Hawaii, however, and they'll be adding 2.76 metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere (note: these calculations include radiative forcing).

And of course, there's always the staycation, which more and more people seem to be taking these days thanks to the rough economy. I personally like camping in the backyard, but you can find more fun ideas here.

If air travel is a must, you can lessen your environmental wingprint by choosing a nonstop flight (50 percent of a plane's emissions occur during takeoff and landing); packing light (lighter plane = less fuel); and taking public transportation to the airport (I'll take the JFK AirTrain over a cab in traffic any day).

Then, make it your mission to tackle what waste you can whilst you travel. It may seem inconsequential in light of all that carbon you're spewing, but it does add up: Did you know, for instance, that 1 million plastic cups are used on US flights every six hours? We can do so much better, and all it takes is a little advance planning. Here's what I take with me on every flight:

Reusable water bottle. More airports are adding water bottle refilling stations that dispense filtered water, but not all do; to be on the safe side, I pack a Bobble reusable bottle with built-in filter.

Homemade snacks/meal. Airport/airplane food is heavily packaged and heavily processed. I pack plenty of healthy food in a reusable lunch bag.

PeopleTowels. These reusable hand towels are a great alternative to those flimsy paper napkins on the flight.

Natural hand sanitizer. I don't trust that tepid non-potable plane water. For a more thorough hand-washing, CleanWell sanitizer kills the germs without the toxic chemicals.

Borrowed book. I'm a sucker for gossip mags on planes, but my conscience (and my brain) feels better when I save trees and borrow my reading material from the library instead.

Collapsible cup. Sometimes a bumpy flight warrants a cocktail. This collapsible stainless steel cup serves one up sans the disposable plastic.

I'd toast to safer and more sustainable summer travel, but quite honestly, I'm too depressed about the Republican push to end military biofuel research. Call your representative!

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