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Will air travel ever be green?

December 15th, 2009
12:19 PM ET

Boeing’s latest, most environmentally-friendly plane ever, the 787 Dreamliner, is finally due to take off tonight on its maiden flight after two years of delays. 

[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/12/15/dreamliner.art.jpg = "After two years of delays Boeing’s Dreamliner is finally about to take off. "]

Boeing says the mid-size Dreamliner – the company’s first new model in more than a decade – will use 20 percent less fuel than today’s airplanes.

About half of the new aircraft is made of lightweight, composite materials – such as carbon, fiber-reinforced resin – making it a lot more fuel-efficient, the company says.

Boeing has staked its reputation on claims the aircraft’s lighter, faster body will save airlines millions in fuel costs, allowing passengers to pay less – and even feel better when they land. The company says the new material will hold up much better than traditional aluminium – and is kinder to the environment.

The new airplane is being unveiled just as the contentious two-week climate change summit currently taking place in Copenhagen plays out.

Thousands of demonstrators demanded countries take meaningful action against climate change this weekend.

On Monday, though, the conference was suspended for several hours when African nations and others walked out of the international meeting, accusing richer countries of trying to get out of their obligations to cut carbon emissions.

Do you believe so-called “green travel” by plane is possible? And that Boeing is actually blazing a trail here with its new, more fuel-efficient plane?

Or is travelling by air simply contrary to being green? And is limiting air travel the only way to go if you really care about the environment?

Tell us your thoughts. And watch the Dreamliner’s maiden flight tonight on Connect the World at 2100 GMT, 2200 CET.

Filed under:  General
soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. Ray

    I doubt air travel can truly be green since solar power will never generate enough energy to lift a plane for the foreseeable future. However, cutting air travel or limiting it will make air travel be something for the "have" and "have not"'s. And that won't go well with the general public. I think the best way to deal with air travel is to balance it out with something else. And maybe replace short-distance, domestic flights with trains.

    That said, if some day, a high-speed green train was built that crossed the oceans, I'd be interested in taking it. I'm not sure if I'll see that day...

    December 15, 2009 at 3:17 pm | Reply
  2. Mebiro

    I'm sure that is going to be one day, as long as the powerfull oil industry doesnt blok the process like, loobbying against inovation. The future is about to bring us amazing surprises, things that we ever imagine. Just look around and think about the mobile phones and the computers. The evolution on the last 30 years is clear evidence of it.

    December 15, 2009 at 3:44 pm | Reply
  3. Henk Pruis The Netherlands

    I think the new genertion will be less polluting than the older generation aircraft, but we should never think that that means that there is no pollution anymore, or that all flights with the dreamliner will be green.

    December 15, 2009 at 4:13 pm | Reply
  4. Giancarlo Giuliano

    Boeing's new Dreamliner will most definitely be a milestone, should their calculations on fuel economy be proven correct. But it does not stop there...

    In many cases, airlines do not operate their aircraft properly. By that, I mean that in order to fly faster (because of a tight schedule), they actually burn far more fuel than if they operated at lower, more efficient speeds.

    In my airline we manage to save at least 150 kilograms of fuel on a 35 minute flight compared to other airlines that use the same aircraft. If you multiply that by the number of flights per day and by the number of aircraft in the fleet, we're probably saving around 15,000 kilograms of fuel per day (and both fleets are not that big compared to much bigger airlines). Do the math and you'll realize how much harm some airlines do to the environment, even if they have fuel-efficient airplanes...

    December 15, 2009 at 4:23 pm | Reply
  5. achk

    do u think by the time it comes in commercial operation,fuel price remains down?hence how it will be cheaper to fly?

    December 15, 2009 at 4:32 pm | Reply
  6. Michael

    300 people traveling by across across the US is a whole hell of a more efficient than 300 cars traveling the same distance.

    Is this even a real question?

    December 15, 2009 at 4:51 pm | Reply
  7. Alan

    According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), air transport represents 3.5% of man’s contribution to global warming from fossil fuel use. Therefore, more than 95% of man’s influence on climate change has nothing to do with aviation, but is rather linked to road traffic, heating systems and other industrialised activities. In addition, according to the Advisory Council for Aeronautical Research in Europe (ACARE), a further 80% fuel saving for air transport is foreseeable by 2020.

    I don't think that the auto industry has similar forecasts for their reduction in pollution, and until cruise ships go back to being wind powered, I think that air travel is the most environmentally friendly mode of crossing long distances.

    Now, for a trip of a couple hundred miles? That is a different question. I think a natural gas or fuel cell powered bus wins out there.

    December 15, 2009 at 5:24 pm | Reply
  8. Andre

    In order for flying to become significantly green(er), the type of fuel would have to change. Petroleum-based jet fuel would have to be replaced by algae-based biofuel. This is technically already possible, and I believe Lord Branson of Virgin Airways has made a test flight with it. However, there's as yet no infrastructure for large scale production and delivery of algae biofuel.

    And ANY biofuel would still produce CO2. The only non-carbon-based approach that I can see working at this point is hydrogen, but the problem of storing huge amounts of it safely for long flights hasn't been solved, as far as I know.

    As other comments have mentioned, a lot can also still be done in terms of conservation and smarter fuel-use policies.

    December 15, 2009 at 5:46 pm | Reply
  9. Martin Brink - Director, Viridas Plc

    With fuel efficient jet engines and lighter and streamlined bodies alone the airline industry will not get there, but by replacing highly polluting fossil fuels with responsibly grown bio-kerosene such as that made from Jatropha, pollution can be reduced another 70-90% and in turn make flying cleaner than any other form of transport making green flying a very real possibility in the not so distant future.

    December 15, 2009 at 7:28 pm | Reply
  10. Mebiro

    Dear Ray,

    My recent readings suggest the contrary. I think the the train era has gone.
    I always give the eg. of mobile phones and its uses in developing countries. the cost of landline infra-struture is so far higher if compared with mobile phones techonology. As for mobile phones it will happen with all land-based transportation because air transportation is more environmental friendly. you don't need to build such infra-structures and even destroy natural habitats.

    Is expected a change in propulsion systems for planes and that can include electrical and solar energy. It is a matter of well directed research and development.

    Lets see how it will work,

    December 15, 2009 at 7:52 pm | Reply

    Not till we have flying cars.........By the way....Where are our flying cars??

    December 16, 2009 at 10:11 pm | Reply
  12. Mebiro


    There will be improved electric flying machines. I preffer dont name them flying cars because they aren't.

    December 17, 2009 at 2:56 pm | Reply
  13. Peter Avery

    Martin Brink

    What modifications will be required to use jatropha oil to power jet aeroplanes?

    December 18, 2009 at 10:43 pm | Reply
  14. BenPGH

    I've seen a lot of incorrect info in these posts, so to set the record straight here are some facts from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics:

    1) Air transport is the LEAST efficient passenger trasport in btu per passenger mile
    2) Rail is the MOST efficient mode of land transport (boat/ship is the most efficient overall)
    3) The first successful solar-powered plane had it's first takeoff a week or two ago, though is very far from a viable technology for passenger flight

    December 21, 2009 at 2:35 pm | Reply
  15. Martin Brink - Director, Viridas Plc

    In order for planes to fly on Jatropha based fuel, no significant modifications need to be made to the engines, making it in effect a "drop-in fuel" capable of replacing fossil based kerosene with up to 70-90% reductions in Greenhouse Gas (GHG) output. The Crude Jatropha Oil needs to be esterified and cracked (refined) in the same way as fossil fuel does, however, Jatropha based kerosene has been shown to have a higher energy content and lower freezing temperature than standard kerosene making it even more attractive for the airline industry. Jatropha currently is the only sustainable and certifiable Biofuel capable of being used in this manner. The problem is not in finding the solution... the problem is in financing the solution and in creating a supply that can address the problem in a sustainable and economically viable way... Continental Airlines, Japan Airlines, Air New Zealand, as well the American Army have already successfully conducted test flights using Jatropha.

    December 21, 2009 at 3:46 pm | Reply

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