Airlines Ballyhoo Greenhouse Plans, Then Complain About Cost

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United jet photoU.S. airlines are addicted to the concept of nickel-and-diming customers for each additional cost they can pass along, from baggage fees, to food, to fuel, to imperceptibly “better” seats.

But for some reason they are upset about a European Union plan to charge them for their carbon dioxide emissions on flights going to and from EU countries, despite the fact that all the U.S. carriers who have complained about the EU plan boast about their strategies to lower their “carbon footprint.” USA Today reports that the scheme, beginning next year, could raise round-trip ticket prices to Europe by as much as $30.

“Airlines are fighting the program aggressively in court and in the political arena,” the newspaper reported. “The meter starts running Jan. 1 on fees that U.S. airlines estimate will cost them $3.1 billion over the next decade.”

A lawsuit has been launched in England against the so-called Emission Trading Scheme, with the U.S. Air Transport Association, American Airlines, United Airlines, and Continental Airlines as the plaintiffs. The ETS allows airlines to emit 85 percent of 2006 carbon dioxide levels in 2012, and 82 percent in subsequent years, but must pay for credits for any amounts above those levels in a cap-and-tax European trading system. As USA Today noted, “That's where the costs and the grumbling come in.”

What’s the big deal? Just as the airlines love to remind travelers about the privileges they enjoy in paying for a $5 beer and a $15 seat a few rows closer to the exit, they can easily sell the additional charge that comes with saving the planet from global warming – right?

After all, just look at how seriously the airline industry has taken its role in the reduction of its contribution to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. American Airlines says on its Web site, “Our long-term goal is to improve our fuel efficiency by 30 percent within 20 years. Upgrading our fleet with new, lighter, more fuel-efficient jets that also offer our passengers more comfort and amenities will continue to be one of our chief strategies for reaching that goal.” Hope that doesn’t compromise safety! 

And from its “sustainable” Admirals Club at San Francisco (where else?) International Airport, to the beverages it serves in-flight, AA carries its environmental conscientiousness to absurd levels: “By changing to single-service decaf coffee, we have reduced excess weight onboard, reducing fuel burn and emissions.” However, one eco-unfriendly practice remains in place:

“Styrofoam cups…are much lighter than paper, and so they help reduce fuel use….Sometimes, when you’re working to be good to the environment, you have to make trade-offs. For now, we’re using Styrofoam for serving your hot coffee or tea safely while reducing your carbon footprint when you fly.”

United Airlines similarly shows off its eco-mindedness, claiming it has “reduced CO2 emissions on our mainline fleet by 11 percent from 2008 to 2009, in direct correlation to our capacity reductions, while continuing to improve our fuel efficiency.” United is so proud of its “corporate social responsibility” that it boasted in its 2009-2010 report:

We put significant resources towards efforts to address climate change, and actively engage with our domestic and international industry associations…on the environment and other industry issues. And in 2009, we were actively involved in formulating the industry’s global vision and promoted the industry position at the sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP 16) to advance the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Through this international forum, we helped address climate change for our industry as a global issue with a global solution.

And then there is Continental Airlines, now merged with United.

“We support a global approach to addressing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the commercial aviation industry,” Continental’s “Eco-Skies” Web page says. “Together with other airlines, engine and airframe manufacturers, fuel suppliers, airports, and governments, we’re working toward collective industry goals, including 1.5 percent average annual fuel efficiency improvement through 2020, carbon neutral growth beginning in 2020, and a 50 percent reduction in CO2 by 2050 relative to 2005 baseline levels.”

Surely those sentiments warm the hearts of the target-minded Henry Waxmans and Barbara Boxers of the world, but as the corporate world never learns, attempts to appease environmentalists never pay off. For example, you’d think eco-grader Climate Counts would be impressed with the efforts by the airlines, but instead American, United and Continental rate poorly in their greenhouse gas reduction achievements. The carriers can spend and say all they want in the name of fighting the fantasy that is global warming, but all it will earn them from Greenpeace and other environmental groups are accusations of “Greenwashing.”

Nevertheless the U.S. air transport industry has played the game, spent money to become “sustainable,” crowed about it, but now balks at EU efforts to make them a full team player? Corporate executives need to learn that environmentalism never stops, because even though you comply with their initial demands, they will always clamor for more.

Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center.