The airplane is one of the most significant forms of transportation. Although it will be a long time before people fly regularly again because of COVID, we need to examine everything behind the air travel industry, especially its tolls against the environment.
Planes are very popular, very much a part of modern society, but there is a lot lurking beneath the facade of convenience and jet-setting style.
From the dangerous health issues to the environmental impacts of every flight, there are many things that airlines won’t tell you. But we at the Zero Waste Lifestyle System asked travel bloggers, travel experts, environmental experts, and industry insiders about the dark truths of airplanes, especially things that might not be common knowledge even to regular fliers.
Why is flying so popular?
Air travel is by far the fastest mode of long-distance transport compared to other forms of travel, says Torben Lonne, Diver, Co-Founder & Chief Editor of DIVEIN.com. Furthermore, airfare prices are significantly reducing and getting more reasonable with time. In addition, flight companies run many promotional offers, which further lowers flight fares and are highly appealing to consumers.
Ludovic Chung-Sao, Aviation Engineer and Founder of Zen Soundproof, says, “Flying has become more and more popular with the emergence of low-cost companies. Also, plane ticket prices kept decreasing over the last 40 years. But right now, I think we are reaching a plateau. Over the last decade, almost all aircraft became 20% more fuel-efficient. I didn’t notice a 20% drop on the ticket price to visit my family but rather an increasing number of airlines offering their service.”
What dangers can one meet when on board an airplane?
It is alarming to see news of people getting hurt in airplanes. There are airline scandals such as United Airlines forcefully taking passengers – who already paid for the ticket – off the airplane. Then there are also sexual assaults and even rape towards people who have fallen asleep or gotten drunk on board. Recently, as Mike Arman, an FAA Advanced Ground School Instructor puts it, “it is mostly idiots who refuse to wear masks and assault cabin crew and/or other passengers”.
Flight crews and frequent flyers are susceptible to a host of health problems, from cancer and cardiovascular disease to vision and hearing loss, to mental disorders and cognitive decline.
According to Torben Lonne, travelers are exposed to numerous infections due to a combination of low humidity and international passengers, are susceptible to traveler’s thrombosis, which causes deep vein thrombosis (DVT) due to sitting in cramped conditions for long periods, are at greater risk of noise-induced hearing loss depending on where they sit, can suffer from travel fatigue and jet lag which can lead to cognitive decline and psychotic and mood disorders, sleep disorders, and possible heart disease and cancer, and are exposed to radiation from harmful cosmic rays.
In fact, Melanie Musson, a travel expert with US Insurance Agents said that no matter how sophisticated the air purification system is, there’s a possibility you’ll get sick from catching something from someone else in close quarters.
To Ludovic Chung-Sao, a danger that nobody talks about a lot is radioactive exposure. Because during a flight, you’re higher in altitude, less atmosphere protects you from solar radiation. So if you’re an occasional traveler, the risk is negligible. However, studies have shown that cancer risk was not negligible for people working in the air.
Flying exposes you to cosmic radiation. Martina Rosado of Happy Travel Mag said, While this only equals the radiation you might get during a routine dentist visit, this could still add up. As a result, it’s actually recommended for female flight attendants to reduce their flight schedules during pregnancy.
Above, the hidden danger that most people aren’t conscious of when riding an airplane is the risk of crashes.
What factors are behind the air crashes?
Atty. Joseph Richard Gutheinz, Jr, one of Texas’ best lawyers who practices criminal law, aviation law, and space law, says, “I have investigated over two dozen plots leading to successful prosecutions; aviation maintenance companies; the Space Shuttle fleet(leading to its grounding); 33 cut wires on the Space Shuttle Endeavor; Shuttle ground maintenance personnel using drugs, and the Russian Mir Space Station fire and collision.
My position on air travel is straightforward. For those who worry they are going to fly and die, the statistics clearly show it’s the safest way to travel. For those who mock those who are afraid to fly, if they knew what I know and have seen, you would be scared too. That is, there are pilots flying drunk, who suffer from mental illness, who have heart disease, etc.
These afflictions are also shared with air traffic controllers and aviation mechanics. Aircraft often are equipped with faulty engines and equipment, with near-disasters more common than the public is aware of. When I board a plane, if I can, I give the pilot and copilot a once over.
I once arrested an Airline Transport Pilot who believed he was a CIA assassin known as Black Death by the Russian with five confirmed kills in Central America. I once investigated an imposter who secured a position as a commercial pilot, and when he tried to land the plane he was in, the real pilot sitting next to him had to wrestle the controls from him. I once investigated a government pilot who killed himself as law enforcement officers attempted to make an arrest. It’s scarier than you think.”
What are the environmental impacts of each airplane trip?
Aviation packs a heavy toll upon the environment in many ways. These include:
Single-use containers for airplane food
Passengers should understand the environmental impact of each flight. They should also understand that single-use items in an airplane add up to a significant amount of waste. For example, just because you’re on a plane doesn’t mean your water cup suddenly has a place to go when you’re finished using it.
BagsID Network, a company that uses AI photo recognition for baggage handling and tracking, stresses the impact passenger baggage and cargo have on CO2 emissions. It is an often overlooked part of air travel, which is astounding considering how much baggage adds to weight and therefore requires more fuel. But let’s take it a step further – each and every passenger bag requires thermal barcode scan tags or RFID tags for tracking (so your baggage gets back to you). These must be replaced for every trip, they’re not reusable. That adds up to tons of paper, ink, and other waste (even energy as multiple printers run 24/7 at every airline).
Runoff and oil spills
Additionally, the leaks and spills on the tarmac will run off into the area’s water system the next time it rains.
Carbon Emissions Higher Than Other Forms of Transport
Ludovic Chung-Sao stated that the level of carbon emission per km and passenger in an airplane is higher than that of a car. For instance, The carbon emissions per passenger on a flight from NYC to Seattle equals the emissions from a car for a year. Airplanes also release non-carbon dioxide gases high up in the atmosphere, which has an even worse effect on global warming.
But there are so many other considerations to consider, such as:
• If there were no planes would people ride the same number of km by car, or train?
• Should we consider that aircrafts continue flying even if they are mostly empty?
• If planes were emitting even less than a car (per km per passenger), wouldn’t it be marketed as better for the environment? More people would take the airplane, ripping all the benefits of improving plane emission.
Mike Arman, who is also an expert in ships and cars, says, “Per seat-mile, an airplane has carbon emissions lots lower than anything else. Compare to ocean liners, which burn high-sulfur fuels and have zero environmental regulation on the high seas. Compare to cars, then add in the CO2 from making all the concrete to make the roads out of, add in the rubber particles from tires, asbestos particles from brakes, and more. Cars are DIRTY when you examine the “subsystems” needed, roads, junkyards, etc., there’s much more involved than “just” the car.”
What are the things that most passengers don’t but should know before they board a plane?
When riding an airplane, passengers must know the things that they might encounter.
Passengers should know, that their life is worth 11,6 Mio.$.
Here’s the explanation: the Department of Transport and FAA use this value as a basis to decide about safety-enhancing regulations in aviation.
Martin Pletzer from Austria, Airline Captain with a major European airline for 27 years, and founder and Chief Editor of hundefutterCHECKER24, a German website about dog’s health and nutrition says that regulators always weigh safety improvements against their cost.
The cost of safety improvements (e..g. additional pilot training, changed aircraft design, …) is compared to the estimated number of fatalities that could be prevented by introducing the safety enhancement.
You are most responsible for your safety inside the airplane
Pay attention to the cabin crew and the safety briefing! Read the safety flyer in the seat pocket so you know where the nearest exit is. Keep your seatbelt fastened whenever the airplane is in motion, don’t unlatch it and jump up as soon as the airplane touches down, you still have to taxi to the terminal and wait for the door to open.
On sustainable and safer aviation
For Allen Shuford, Energy Service Advisor at The Switch, one thing currently happening, albeit slowly, is a shift from consumer responsibility to corporate responsibility. The entire dilemma of airline travel being heavily polluting rests in the hands of the airline industry.
There are calls for people to travel less on an airplane. Greta Thunberg took a sailboat to the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit. However, when looking at the overall issue, the responsibility should not be on the consumer to travel less. The responsibility should be on the airline industry to bring about sustainable solutions through investment in green technology and waste-reducing measures.
Aviation can always be safer. But safety in aviation has improved dramatically since the first commercial aircrafts sailed. It’s just international aviation authorities that need to be consistently firm on existing safety guidelines so disasters won’t occur.
Aside from focusing on fuel efficiency optimization, sustainable fuels are in development. In fact, Virgin Atlantic has flown a 747 with one engine running on fuel made from algae. (No passengers on this, remember, safety first!) In addition, there are electric aircraft in development now, mostly for shorter-range flights.
Sustainable Alternatives to Air Travel
There can be many options when traveling. It depends on the person if he/she wants to use an airplane, train, bus, or ship as a medium when traveling.
Mike Farman gives his two cents on the transport options:
“Cars – no good, even electric cars take a lot of infrastructures, lots of concrete, asphalt, bridges, rights of way, etc. Electric cars also use a lot of lithium in the batteries, 90% of it comes from China, the other 10% from Chile. Lithium doesn’t recycle well.
Railroads – no good, the population density in the US is too low (outside of major metropolitan areas) to support railroads. They’re great in cities (subways, etc.) but when it takes three days to go from NY to SF, one whistle stop at a time, nobody will ride it. Railroads also have extensive infrastructure and right of way problems. Railroads are good for freight, there’s no hurry and the freight doesn’t complain about being too hot, too cold, or delayed a few hours.
Ships – slow, polluting, very subject to weather (airplanes can fly OVER storms, ships get to try to sail through them, and not always successfully, either), ships are for bulk cargo (coal, iron ore) and pleasure cruises, they really don’t work very well as a means of general transportation. There are some exceptions such as the Staten Island Ferry (for instance), but you need navigable waterways for ships to work.”
For Ludovic Chung-Sao, trains or electric vehicles can be used instead of an airplane. But it will depend on how the electricity is produced. For example, if the electricity supply relies on renewable energy or nuclear, the carbon footprint will indeed be lower.
Ultimately, the simplest way to make your flying experience more sustainable is to fly directly to your destination. The less time you spend in the air, the less environmental impact you will have.