With study abroad, business trips and international family reunions, and with the internet making travel more accessible, air travel has become so common that many travelers sleep through it or find themselves complaining about how slow the Wi-Fi is as they fly above the clouds at hundreds of miles per hour.
On average, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) handles more than 44,000 flights per day. In just July of this year, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport served more than 5 million passengers.
Along with all that travel comes 895 million metric tons of carbon emissions per year.
But you may not need to throw out (recycle) your suitcases just yet.
The days of realistic virtual vacations by elaborate hologram or electric 737s might be a long way off (the Bothell-based electric-airplane startup Zunum recently ran out of money), but with climate change on the mind, environmental researchers, travel-industry and communication innovators are imagining and implementing efforts for a more sustainable future for air travel.
Taking personal responsibility
Two years ago, University of Washington political-science professor Aseem Prakash and UW environmental-affairs professor Nives Dolšak overheard two fellow environmental-affairs professors bragging to each other about how often they traveled.
The married couple looked at each other, silently sharing a realization that would inspire them to focus their work on sustainable travel practices.
“It seemed to us very incongruous, because in one breath you’re talking about climate change,” said Prakash. “And then we’re in this bragging match (about travel).”
“As scholars who study climate change, who know the problems climate change would pose to our societies, we have an extra moral and professional responsibility,” Prakash said. “We aren’t making the case that people should stop going to conferences or giving lectures, but people should try to reduce them to the extent that’s possible.”
Through their work, they encourage their colleagues and the public to travel less and more responsibly by using alternatives to air travel, supporting fuel-efficient airlines and aircraft, and purchasing carbon offsets — a credit travelers can buy that gets applied to programs that reduce carbon emissions.
Dolšak and Prakash don’t just talk the talk, they also take action in their own travels.
Prakash turned down three trips to prominent universities this year, and Dolšak fulfilled a commitment at a European university by using PowerPoint presentations and answering questions over email, rather than traveling to Europe to lecture.
At home, this “sustainable power couple” often discuss their hopes for a future in which universities and businesses hold their faculty and staff to “carbon budgets,” much like departmental financial budgets. Prakash and Dolšak have proposed this idea to the UW and other professional organizations and have also written publicly about the idea.
Dolšak envisions solutions like an app or search engine that supplies travelers not only with map directions, but also information about the trip’s carbon footprint, alternative methods of getting there and the environmental impact of their visit.
Prakash hopes for a future in which all modes of transportation run on renewable energy and travelers are more conscious of their impact on the ecosystems they visit.
While Dolšak and Prakash encourage less travel, they don’t think people should stop traveling altogether, and they recognize their own privileged position as more established professors.
“We’re not saying, ‘We’ve traveled, now the young professors can no longer travel,’ ” said Dolšak. “We’re absolutely saying we have a common responsibility, but we have differentiated responsibilities.”
“It’s important that people travel,” said Prakash. “In a globalized world, international exchanges, cultural exchanges are absolutely important to make the world a better place, to create more compassion, to create a sense of global citizenship.”
Encouraging climate-conscious airlines and airports
The environmental impact of air travel doesn’t all come from the actual flying. Other factors include how waste at airports is disposed of, ground transportation to and from airports, and emissions from airport ground-support vehicles.
At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the Port of Seattle’s Environment and Sustainability Department has implemented sustainability efforts to mitigate these impacts, including the use of electric-operated ground-support vehicles, composting, recycling and a partnership with a carbon-offset program.
The Port also works with regional transit authorities to reduce emissions from ground transportation and encourage travelers to opt for lower-impact ground-transportation options like public transit rather than curbside drop-off and pickup — the most carbon-expensive option.
When it comes to the aircraft operating on the ground at the airport, Stephanie Meyn with the Port’s Department of Environment and Sustainability said the Port aims to eventually have every aircraft producing zero carbon emissions as they taxi to and from the gate and while they unload and load passengers and cargo.
Once the aircraft is in the air, decreasing emissions and improving sustainability is up to the individual airlines.
Using more fuel-efficient aircraft, sustainable aviation fuels and optimized flight paths are ways that some airlines are decreasing their carbon emissions in-flight. Technological advances can also help. According to Alaska Airlines’ director of sustainability Kirk Myers, Alaska Airlines saved 4.5 million gallons of fuel in 2018 by retrofitting every aircraft with winglets (extra small wings that reduce drag).
Until it’s possible to operate commercial passenger planes by electric power, Myers believes that using sustainable aviation fuels, which he says can reduce carbon by up to about 80% compared to fossil fuels, present the best opportunity for a very significant reduction in carbon emissions from air travel in the future.
“If we’re going to have healthy communities and a healthy planet for our people to live on, airlines are going to get better,” said Myers. “The most efficient airlines are also the ones who are (best) positioned to be around five years, 10 years, 20 years from now.”
“The vision is to have the most good with the least bad,” Myers said. “Let’s make sure that we connect people and use the power of aviation as a force for good.”
Making virtual connections
Advances in technologies like virtual reality (VR) may eventually help connect people in more realistic ways, helping to alleviate some people’s need (or ability) to travel.
After a fatal terror attack in Dhaka in Bangladesh in 2016, Chris Duguid’s wife and two daughters were sent back to their home in Canada for their safety. Duguid, an aide worker, remained in Dhaka to continue his work.
Thousands of miles away from his family, riding an armored vehicle to and from work, and practically bound to his home, Duguid built a computer, bought a virtual-reality headset and began using AltspaceVR to stay socially connected.
AltspaceVR is a social virtual-reality platform acquired by Microsoft in 2017 that allows users from all over the world to connect in a virtual-reality setting where they can “hang out” with friends and participate in various activities or live events together.
In Altspace, Duguid met and talked with people from all over the world, including, one day, Altspace product owner Katie Kelly.
Touched by Duguid’s story about how he came to be separated from his family, Kelly went to visit Duguid’s wife and daughters in Canada, bringing with her three VR headsets.
For the year that the Duguid family was separated, they stayed connected by exploring and playing games together in Altspace. In Altspace, Duguid built a 3D VR representation of his daughter’s bedroom in Dhaka and other familiar spaces where the family could interact. Later, Duguid told Kelly that his memories of hanging out in Altspace felt more like actually hanging out with his kids than it did when they talked over video chat.
“It really did help us reconnect in a deep way,” said Duguid in an email. “So much so that I do it now with my 75-year-old mom.”
While AltspaceVR hasn’t reached the levels of “Star Trek’s” realistic VR Holodeck yet, Kelly says realism isn’t the company’s goal anyway. By hosting live virtual events like comedy shows and meetups, Altspace aims first and foremost to make users feel like they are sharing and connecting with people.
“We want to democratize the ability to go and meet like-minded people (or) go to an awesome event,” said Kelly. “What’s the best way for strangers to interact in the real world? It’s going to a comedy show, it’s dinner, it’s going to a meetup where you’re going to meet like-minded people. So that’s what we try to emulate in a VR environment.”
Kelly gets particularly excited when she talks about Altspace’s weekly meetup for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ+) individuals. According to Kelly, the meetup has been a place of support for LGBTQ+ individuals from different countries, including those where LGBTQ+ people are persecuted or where it is illegal for these individuals to attend groups like this.
Virtual-reality developments like Altspace might not be a replacement for travel, but for those taking several flights a year for business meetings, conferences, or to connect with friends or family, it could someday mean traveling a lot less.
“If we can do this right, we have the chance to help define what the future of communication is entirely,” Kelly said. “We have remote workers across the world that feel like second-class citizens on video calls. We have people that are unable to participate in work (like) I do in Seattle, because they live in a poor country or in a small town.
“So what would happen if everybody had that same accessibility and ability to make a difference from wherever it is that they are? Just like the internet democratized so many things, this is the next stage.”