Over the past three years I have been low-key freaking out about… my frequent flier status. Yeah, I know. It’s embarrassing.
When the COVID curtain came down, the first thing I thought about was keeping my family safe. The second thing was buying beans and some weird disinfectant I still have in the basement. And then, as I realized I would not be hopping between corporate offices, sales calls, meetings, and conferences, I was like, [super annoying inner monologue voice of your choice] am I going to be able to accumulate enough miles to retain my medallion status?
At 6AM the other day I suggested to my wife that we put the kid’s preschool tuition on my airline credit card. Gotta get those base miles.
It is hard to conceive of something dumber than this fixation, but I did spend a lot of the past decade on planes. I flew for work; I flew for fun. Sometimes I went on mileage runs: multi-hop trips across the country in which I would depart from and return to the same airport in the same day, just to rack up miles and haul my business-travel-softened ass onto the next tier of airline status. I still know by heart that a JFK to SFO round trip will net me 5,221 miles.
I want to kick my past self in the nuts so hard.
My commitment to the airline status game probably rings familiar to some of you. If it sounds bizarre to you, believe me when I say that the rewards do make flying more convenient. You can skip lines, check luggage for free, get on planes earlier so you actually have a chance of fitting your bag in an overhead bin, and even snag a premium seat.
The game is also pretty gross: a choice example of our cultural obsession with being told we’re better than others. We’ll get into the environmental stuff in a minute, but let’s just say that’s not good either. There is an alternative, though, and its benefits far outweigh the perks of any airline’s tightfisted loyalty program. Share this post with all of your travelin’ friends to immediately receive Planet Earth Elite Status. Insert the metal tip into the buckle, and relax and enjoy the ride.
Air travel is a miracle. You saunter into a metal tube, power down a Fresca and some nuts, watch a few movies, and step out onto another continent some hours later 🤯.
🛫 Yay! 🛬
It’s an environmental bloodbath. In the U.S., airline emissions have increased by 17 percent since 1990 and account for nearly 10 percent of our transportation-related emissions. Globally, air travel makes up 2.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, which, despite its single digit status, is a giant freaking number. And if you factor in the effect of vapor rails, that number doubles to 5 percent.
An average airplane trip generates 410 grams of CO2 per passenger per mile. So each of my 5,221-mile San Francisco trips produced 2,140 kilograms of CO2—more than two metric tons! How does that compare to the rest of life? The most common heating fuel in the U.S. is natural gas, which emits 0.0551 kilograms of CO2 per cubic foot. The average home uses 41,510 cubic feet of the stuff in a year, so that’s 2,287 kilograms—more than two metric tons!
You probably already picked up what the math is laying down, but here it is for the pre-coffee crowd: a round-trip flight across the country produces about as much CO2 in 12 or so hours as a typical American home does in 12 months.
That’s flying coach. According to a study [PDF] by the World Bank, flying business has about three times the footprint of flying steerage. This is due to the additional space each passenger takes up, the weight of the fancy seats, and 30-plus pages of other factors. First class is NINE TIMES as intensive. So lounging your way across the country in a lie-flat berth produces years of home-energy emissions.
This is not supposed to be a guilt trip. Airplanes enable so many incredible innovations, from our global economy to long-distance organ donation. Sometimes it is the only practical option, like when you need to cross an ocean or our stately, plump nation. We’re just overdoing it a bit. So here’s the opportunity: In a lot of cases, it’s pretty easy to not fly; if enough of us replace even one airplane trip with a less carbon-intensive alternative, we can make a measurable difference.
Let’s say you drove those same 5,221 miles in a car. That trip would tip 1,613 kilograms of CO2 into the air; and every person you added to the carpool would bring the carbon-per-person figure down. A bus journey of the same length would only emit 882 kilos per person. Trains bring up the clean-travel caboose with 344 kg. These numbers are not exact, because so many variables contribute to emissions: what kind of car you’re in and how fast you drive, how the plane is equipped, what powers the local electric grid, whether the wipers on the bus go swish swish swish, and more. But the figures are directionally accurate. Planes: lotta CO2; trains and automobiles: less.
Another asterisk to consider is that airplane trips get more efficient the farther you fly, because you’re amortizing the time spent idling and taxiing on the tarmac. So if you save flying for necessary long hauls, you’re off to a great start—though I’d be guilty of guilt trip malpractice if I didn’t point out that an hour-long Zoom meeting will only rack up 1.1 kilograms of carbon.
Ditching planes for cleaner modes of transport goes by the handle Slow Travel in eco-conscious circles. I first heard about it from Cass Hebron, an activist and climate communications consultant who resides in Belgium and started living plane free earlier this year. (She runs a terrific newsletter called The Green Fix that you can check out here.) I called her to ask how it was going.
Though she grounded herself for environmental reasons, Hebron had no emissions data to share or calculations for how much CO2 she had kept out of the atmosphere. Instead, she was eager to talk about the upsides of not flying. “We’re so accustomed to having cheap weekend flights everywhere, we tend to regard the intervening distance as an obstacle to overcome, rather than part of the journey,” she says.
That really hit me, and it got me daydreaming. I spaced out a little and started cycling through favorite travel memories: a roadside fry-bread stand my wife and I stumbled across during a road trip through Arizona, back when we had just started dating. Early morning coffee with strangers in the cafe car of a Vietnamese train, piecing together bits of shared language while everyone else slept.
I’ve spent the past ten years flying more to make flying better; but maybe the answer for me is to make travel better by flying less.
The rub, of course, is that being able to be anywhere on Earth in a day has fundamentally changed how we expect the world to work. “I’ve had to get used to doing some some forward planning,” says Hebron. “If you know you have to be somewhere at a particular time, you just work backwards and create some buffer space.” Between missed connections and delays, she doesn’t always arrive on schedule; but as someone who works in the climate space, she’s had understanding clients. “Even the people who think I’m insane tend to find it interesting. They tend to just regard it as an exciting story.”
Slow traveling for business is a major eco-flex, and Hebron will be the first to acknowledge how much easier it is for someone who lives in Europe. Between the excellent infrastructure and close proximity, she’s playing a different game. Don’t feel like you need to pull that off. I certainly can’t, and I don’t even work for a real company. But I’ll bet I can manage it for some trips…
I’m gonna play the “what if a million of us _______” game: Let’s say we each swap one middle-distance flight for a train ride. Call it a thousand miles each way. In a plane, we’d spew 510 kilograms of carbon dioxide. On a train, we’d only be responsible for 82, a difference of 428 kg. Multiplied out across our imaginary army, that’s 428,000 metric tons of planet-warming CO2 kept out of the atmosphere every year.
That’s a serious number, and there have got to be more than a million us who can make this trade.
I’m bringing the concept of Slow Travel up now because the holidays are approaching, and some of you are probably about to book flights to visit family or friends. Slow Travel takes planning, and it will probably shorten your visit. Which means you might have to trade long security lines, airport coffee, and time with your weird cousins for a road trip adventure or a magical train ride. Hopefully you’ll be OK with the sacrifice.
Take care of yourselves—and the rest of us too.