Last Updated 13 Jan 2021

Low cost airlines are an environmental disaster

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A low-cost carrier or low cost airline is an airline that offers generally low fares in exchange for eliminating many traditional passenger services. The concept originated in the United States before spreading to Europe in the early 1990s and subsequently to much of the rest of the world. The term originated within the airline industry referring to airlines with a low - or lower - operating cost structure than their competitors. Through popular media the term has since come to define any carrier with low ticket prices and limited services regardless of their costs. While most discount airlines have more fuel-efficient fleets than older carriers, their significant contribution to sky traffic is unprecedented.

Commercial passenger airlines, especially low cost and Internet sales-based carriers, are experiencing growth internationally. In the United States, airline flight sales dropped 30 percent directly following September 11, but have since made a comeback and are now experiencing slow but steady growth.Today, the U.S. has been able to maintain its place as the leading nation in air travel, and North America accounts for 40 percent of worldwide air traffic.

Low-cost airlines such as Jet Blue Airways have led this domestic growth, topping the Bureau of Transportation charts for domestic profit gains. Airline sales in Asia are escalating as well, and the skies are becoming increasingly more crowded. In China alone, the market is projected to grow more than 200 percent from 1999 to 2014.

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While these flares may seem like a dream come true for low-budget travelers, the resulting surge in air traffic carries with it major environmental costs. Even with the more fuel-efficient technology that has evolved over the last 30 years, air travel remains a significant contributor to climate change. Air transport has increased twice as fast as road transport over the last 40 years. Air travel produces more carbon dioxide per km travelled for each passenger than car travel.

There are clearly environmental effects increasing as a result of air travel, while others are decreasing or staying constant. Environmentalists say airlines rate as one of the most polluting forms of transport, with 16,000 commercial jets producing over 600 million tonne of carbon dioxide every year.

Meanwhile, precise guidelines on international aircraft emissions are excluded from the Kyoto Protocol, with the stipulation that airline emission reform must be taken up by a separate organization, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Internationally, fuel used for aviation is tax exempt, and according to ICAO Secretariat John Crayston, "While the ICAO has established emissions standards for certain emissions there are no standards for CO2." The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that aviation's share in climate change is at about 3.5 percent of the total contributions, which is predicted to climb to five percent by 2050.

According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), aerosol particles that are emitted in aviation such as soot, metals and sulfuric acid can indirectly influence climate change by causing additional cirrus clouds to form, which in turn trap the heat rising from the Earth's surface. The IPCC projects an overall global temperature increase from 34.7 to 40.1 degrees Fahrenheit between 1990 and 2100.

Unlike in the US where a large number of domestic flights emit carbon dioxide over one area, the SDC has said that 97% of UK air transport is non-domestic, with carbon dioxide emissions generated on flights between countries. PARIS - The European boom in ''low-cost'' airlines, fueled by tax incentives, is increasing the level of toxic gases in the atmosphere and displacing less polluting and more efficient means of transportation for shorter distances, like trains.

The Kyoto Protocol and the UK government's energy White Paper targets do not currently cover emissions from international aviation, as there is no global agreement on the allocation of these emissions to countries. It may not mean that the industry would be destroyed, but there are much more efficient and effective tools when it comes to dealing with emissions. One other possibility that has been put forward by the airline industry is emissions trading.
Numbers passing through UK airports expected to double to 400m by 2030.Air travel is growing globally at about 5% a year.

At the forefront of this revolution are the low-cost, no-frills carriers such as Ryanair, Easyjet and Buzz, which are growing at a phenomenal rate. In June, Easyjet passenger numbers were up more than 50% on the same month last year. Ryanair increased by 34% and Go saw an incredible 72% rise. The lesson learned from these airlines, especially post-11 September, is as clear as it is simple - the cheaper your fares, the more people will fly. But if air travel is allowed to grow unchecked in this way, it will spell disaster for the planet, say environmentalists.

More flights mean bigger, busier airports, which in turn means more noise and growing problems with air quality for those who live and work close to airports. But perhaps the biggest concern is the effect on global warming. The problem for environmentalists is that while efforts are being made to cut CO2 emissions from cars and industry, nothing is being done to rein in the airlines.

Climatic change

Burning aviation fuel releases greenhouse gases predominantly carbon dioxide (CO2) into the environment, causing the Earth to heat up leads to global warming and the process of climate changes such as higher sea levels, devastating floods and droughts. Air traffic worldwide produces emissions of more than 600 million tons of carbon dioxide.

In addition, it releases nitrates, ash, sulfates and water vapor. Some of these substances deplete ozone in the atmosphere. This layer of ozone gas is crucial for protecting life on Earth from the Sun's harmful rays. Flying also releases nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides, and even the vapour trails - contrails - left by planes are thought to be a hazard. It's been suggested that they add to the insulating effect of cirrus clouds on our climate.

The Britain-based environmental group Tourism Concern predicts that by 2015 half of the annual destruction of the ozone layer will be caused by commercial air traffic and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates aviation causes 3.5 per cent of man-made global warming and that figure could rise to 15 per cent by 2050.

NASA scientists say condensation trails from jet exhausts create cirrus clouds that may trap heat rising from the earth’s surface. This could account for nearly all the warming over the United States between 1975 and 1994.
The guidelines on international aircraft emissions were excluded from the Kyoto protocol on climate change and aviation fuel is tax exempt.

Aerospace firms have made huge leaps forward, with commercial jets now 70 per cent more fuel efficient per passenger kilometre (mile) than they were 40 years ago, thanks to better engines, lighter materials and aerodynamic designs. Optimists, including Easyjet, pin their hopes on technology to make planes more efficient.

And cost-obsessed carriers are continuously searching for ways to use capacity better, find more direct flight paths and cut congestion in order to trim the hefty fuel bills which make up 25 per cent of airline operating costs. Most discount airlines have young, more fuel-efficient fleets and newer airlines in regions such as Asia have leap-frogged older technologies to buy new planes. Hundreds of flights by subsidized airlines in Europe are endangering the global climate and the ozone layer. For now, they fly free of environmental regulations.

The industry believes this Air Passenger Duty (APD), which raises £800m a year, can be regarded as a form of environmental compensation. It may not mean that the industry would be destroyed, but there are much more efficient and effective tools when it comes to dealing with emissions. Since April this year, airlines that use Heathrow Airport have been charged for nitrogen oxide emissions and carriers emitting less receive a rebate. This will happen in Gatwick in a year or so.

One other possibility that has been put forward by the airline industry is emissions trading. Under this scheme, to help with the environmental costs caused by civil aviation pollution, by 2008, the industry would pay for other industries, such as the nuclear fuels sector, to reduce their carbon emissions.

The proposal has been put forward to the European Commission, and includes an incentive for airlines to pay less into emissions trading if they use more environmentally friendly aircraft. The FOE says emissions trading, and the proposal to differentiate landing charges at airports according to noise levels and air pollution, outlined in last year's aviation White Paper, has potential.

The issue of an aviation fuel tax is not top of the international climate change agenda, because it will have to be confronted at a global level. There are a lot of domestic issues the government has to deal with, areas that damage the environment more than the 5% of carbon dioxide emissions caused by the airline industry.On this basis, the likelihood of low-cost air fares rising in the near future is an unlikely one.


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Michael Smith. 2006. Branson launches plan to cut aviation emissions.[online].
Nicolas E. Antoine . , Ilan M. Kroo. 2002. Aircraft optimization for minimal environmental impact. 9th AIAA/ISSMO Symposium on Multidisciplinary Analysis and Optimization. 4-6 September 2002, Atlanta, Georgia

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