United Airlines can show off their compostable plates and quinoa wraps, but they can’t hide the dirty truth of a dirty energy industry. In USA Today, travel writer Dawn Gilbertson gushed about United’s demonstration “Flight for the Planet”—a one-off PR move showing off what the company called “the most eco-friendly commercial flight of its kind in the history of aviation.”

What makes a flight green? According to the airline:

  • quinoa and kale superfood wraps
  • compostable or recyclable plates
  • first class meals wrapped in beeswax

The article also trumpets reductions in greenhouse gas emissions:

The Boeing 737-900 flight, with 161 passengers, was powered not just by traditional jet fuel; 30% was biofuel made from agricultural waste. United has been using biofuel, which cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 60%, since 2016 on flights at its Los Angeles International Airport hub, and last year biofuels accounted for 1/2 of 1% of the fuel mix there…The airline purchased carbon offsets to cover the remaining portion of flight where it didn’t achieve zero emissions. 

Small improvements in efficiency are important. And if the flight was 70% powered by standard jet fuel, 30% by biofuels made from agricultural waste—for a net estimated real GHG reduction of 12%. Serious concerns about biofuels and offsets aside, by the numbers, this is progress.

But unfortunately, we can do the math.

If United is currently able to use lower-emission fuels as 0.5% of the fuel at 1 airport, how long will it take to scale that up to 30% of the fuel used at all 223 airports that United serves?

“Someday we hope to have all of our flights powered by biofuel,” Kirby said.

We have 11 years left to reverse irreversible damage from climate change. Unfortunately, “someday” isn’t good enough.


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