Case against flying not so airtight

Newer figures show air travel's efficiency

July 28, 2007

by David Kopel

Imagine my pleasant surprise when Denver Postcolumnist Diane Carman offered backhanded faint praise for SUVs. Sadly, she was wrong.

In a June 26 column, Carman questioned whether Bike to Work Week should be giving away plane tickets as a prize: " estimates that each passenger on a coast-to-coast flight contributes a ton of carbon dioxide . . . twice what would be produced if each passenger made the trip alone in an SUV." Carman's source was an Aug. 9, 2004, article from the National Geographic Traveler Web site.

Actually, typical coast-to-coast commercial air travel may produces vastly less CO2.

Let's stack the deck against air travel: We'll consider United's Los Angeles to New York's JFK service; this involves a relatively older plane, the Boeing 757-200, in a configuration which cuts the 757's normal seating capacity of 182 down to 110. Using United's average 2005 load factor of 81 percent, we have 89 passengers on a typical flight.

Figuring the plane would burn 5,000 gallons of fuel on the trip (probably an overestimate), we get about 56 gallons of jet fuel per passenger.

If you burn 56 gallons of motor fuel in your SUV, assuming 15 highway miles per gallon, then you would drive only 840 miles before using as much fuel as did a passenger in the 2,475 mile LAX to JFK trip.

Jet fuel emits about 8 percent more carbon dioxide per gallon than motor fuel. (EPA, "Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2002" Annex 2, tables 2-17 and 2-24). Even so, the jet is 3.2 times better than the solo SUV for the coast-to-coast trip - even for a flight with an unusually small number of passengers and an older plane. Imagine a newer plane with more passengers, and the environmental superiority of air travel (for long flights) becomes even greater.

Jonathan Tourtellot, the National Geographic Traveler editor who wrote the 2004 article on which Carman had relied, agreed with me that in the particular example above, the commercial flight would be better than the SUV. Because airplanes use so much fuel on takeoff and landing, the average miles per gallon for a long flight will be much better than for a short flight. Tourtellot suggested that the 2004 article might have relied on older data for airline fuel economy, which did not distinguish long flights from shorter flights; the older data might also have been based on the days when there were fewer passengers per plane than today.

It was not unreasonable for Carman to cite National Geographic, nor for National Geographic to use the best data it had available in 2004. Still, because so many people rely on the media for advice about environmentally responsible behavior, it is important to stop the spread of misleading factoids.

One theme of the Harry Potter series is the self-serving amorality of the mainstream press, exemplified by the Daily Prophetnewspaper and its sleazy star reporter Rita Skeeter. Last week, The New York Times, the Baltimore Sunand the Rocky Mountain Newsdemonstrated that some muggle newspapers can behave just as badly.

Obtaining copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which had been illegally released, the Timesand the Sunpublished reviews that gave away crucial plot details and did so before the book had gone on sale to the general public.

Both the Timesand the Sundisclosed the meaning of the book's title - an enormous plot point. The Timesprovided a further spoiler about "the deathly hallows" related to a later event in the book. In the Rocky, a shorter version of the Timesarticle deleted the worst spoilers but still revealed too much.

It's no excuse to say that people could choose not to read the review. Both in the Timesand the Rocky, they were in the news sections. And in the Timesit was not clearly labeled as a review. Innocent readers may have been several paragraphs deep before they realized that it was not a preview.

The opening of the Sunreview promised not to reveal who lived or died but then disclosed a major fact that clearly indicated the final result for Harry.

In response to public outcry, the Times'public editor offered weaselly defenses worthy of a Ministry of Magic bureaucrat: The Timeshad bought the book legally - supposedly from a store-which-must-not-be-named. The public editor delicately failed to mention that the store itself was in flagrant breach of its contract with the publisher, and hence the Timeswas choosing to profit from someone else's unlawful and immoral acts.

The public editor also claimed that the favorable review helped "hype" the book. As if a book, which had already broken every record for pre-publication sales, needed some extra "hype."

How pathetic to deprive so many people of the joy of discovery in order to get a "scoop" on a work of fiction.


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