Is it Possible to Fly Responsibly?

KLM flight

Travel writer Henry Wismayer, recently wrote an an eye-opening piece in The Atlantic, on the need to rethink our profession as travel writers. The very thing we love and want others to experience – the stupendous beauty of our planet – is under imminent threat, partly as a consequence of our flying emissions and the need to fly responsibly.

“That’s a hard thing for a travel writer to admit. After family and friends, travel is pretty much my favorite thing—not only my source of income, but an inexhaustible wellspring of curiosity, empathy, and wonder,” wrote Wismayer, and I nodded along reading it, relieved that the ‘flying shame’ wasn’t mine alone.

Indeed, a few months ago, when KLM Royal Dutch Airlines reached out to me for a collaboration to promote the need to”fly responsibly”, it sounded like an oxymoron. After all, the airline industry is responsible for atleast 2% of the world’s total carbon emissions – and green hydrogen or sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) powered flights are still a very distant reality.

However, learning about their on-going sustainability initiatives gave me hope.

Should we take the train instead?

There’s a standing joke in the aviation space: The most sustainable flight in the world is the one that never takes off!

KLM is the world’s first airline to openly encourage people to take the train – and for that they’ve won my respect. On average, a passenger on a train emits significantly less CO2 than an airline passenger.

Taking a train
Photo: Vincent Bozzo

Not all airlines are the same when it comes to carbon emissions or attempting to fly responsibly

The Dow Jones Sustainability Index is currently the most reliable measure of airline sustainability, and in September 2019, KLM made it to the top again. It’s previously been ranked the world’s most sustainable airline for 12 years in a row!

KLM flight, fly responsibly

On my KLM flight from Delhi to Amsterdam, I discovered that being (relatively) sustainable doesn’t mean compromising on comfort

Think mood lighting, spacious seats, big screen and personal window brightness control.

KLM flight Delhi to Amsterdam

Infact the latest Boeing 787 Dreamliners are more luxurious yet more fuel efficient

The Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner I flew has 25% better fuel efficiency and more passenger capacity, yet is lighter than equivalent aircrafts.

Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner I

An inflight video explained that some KLM flights are partially powered by sustainable aviation fuel

The world’s first airline to do so on a commercial route.

Using biojet fuel (basically cooking oil waste that can’t be reused in a kitchen) can reduce CO2 emissions of air travel by upto 80%, making it possible in the distant future to fly responsibly!

The challenge right now is that SAF is available in very limited quantities and therefore extremely expensive. Realistically speaking, it might be years before it can be scaled up.

KLM flights sustainability

Research has shown that flying direct – which is more convenient – has lower carbon emissions

Take-off and landing account for the highest emissions. KLM already flies direct from Delhi and Mumbai to Amsterdam. Starting 31st October 2019, their Boeing 787s will also start flying the direct Bangalore-Amsterdam route.

On the one hand, flying direct reduces emissions. But on the other, launching new airline routes adds to them!

KLM flight, fly responsibly

I was surprised that a design school in Amsterdam put together a fashion show with a dismantled KLM jet

All clothes were made from the jet material, including seat belts and tyres 😲

KLM Cares
via KLM Cares.

Concerned that single-use plastic is still used on board

At a press conference, when I asked KLM’s CEO Peter Elbers whether we could expect single-use plastic free flights in the future, he explained the dilemma. Using reusable utensils and cutlery means carrying more water on board to wash everything; more weight = more emissions. He hinted though, that research is underway for bulk plastic alternatives, like bamboo toothbrushes in inflight amenity kits.

I also learnt that segregation for composting / recycling on board airlines is closely tied to waste management laws where the plane lands.

KLM flights

Intrigued that small steps to fly lighter can reduce fuel consumption and be an immediate step for all airlines to fly responsibly

KLM has done away with physical newspapers, and uses lighter cargo nets and trolleys to decrease the weight on board, resulting in lower emissions.

KLM, fly responsibly

And relieved that a “semi-dry wash” to clean these giants planes uses 80 times less water

KLM developed this technique that works almost like a washing machine, back in 2012.

KLM flights

I felt creative at the uber cool workspaces at the new KLM Crown Lounge in Amsterdam

Before a taste of KLM business class with full flat seats, huge windows, huge screens and plenty of motivation to write, practice Urdu and watch a sappy movie 😉

KLM Crown Lounge in Amsterdam

And hopeful that unlike many airlines, KLM is talking about the need to fly responsibly and their carbon emissions upfront

Urging the industry to invest in sustainability. No planet = no profits.

KLM flight, sustainable flying

It is the world’s first airline to offer passengers a CO2ZERO program to offset emissions

Where we can calculate the average emissions of our flight, and use airline miles or cash to let them invest in reforestation projects in Panama on our behalf. Given all the skepticism around offset programs, I’d love to visit those projects in person someday!

See my ongoing Passion Projects, one of which focuses on reforestation in the Uttarakhand Himalayas.

KLM CO2ZERO program

Air travel has changed much in the last 100 years

KLM has been around since 1919 – the world’s only airline to be flying for a 100 years under the same name! Yet it gives me hope for the future of aviation.

fly responsibly, klm history, early aircrafts

Now to fly responsibly, I know that my choice of airline and aircraft matter

It’s high time we offer our loyalty to those that care about the planet.

KLM flights

And even as a travel writer, I’m seriously working towards flying much less than before

Given the visa challenges of the Indian passport, and India’s closed borders with some neighbours, land journeys can be challenging. But I can’t let that stop me…

The shooting star, fly responsibly

After all, we need to do all we can to reduce our carbon footprint on earth

No planet = no us.

The shooting star shivya nath

Tips to fly responsibly:

In the process of researching responsible flying, I’ve also learnt a few things we can each do on an individual level, besides choosing a sustainable airline and a more efficient aircraft:

  • Pick a direct flight. The majority of flying emissions are emitted during take-off and landing. A direct flight therefore means significantly lower emissions than one with stopovers.
  • Pack lighter. Less weight on board = less emissions.
  • Say no to single-use plastic. I always carry my own water bottle and refill it at the airport before the flight. I also carry my own headphones, refuse wet towels that come in plastic pouches, and when possible, pack food / snacks in my steel container to avoid mostly awful airplane food that’s wrapped in plastic and comes with plastic cutlery.

And you, what have you learnt about sustainability on your travels?

*Note: I wrote this post in collaboration with KLM India. Opinions on this blog are always mine.

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  1. Thanks for sharing! This puts a lot in perspective

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Thanks for reading!

  2. I have travelled with KLM and I was extremely happy with friendly flight stewardess, a rarity these days. One of the best things when you choose KLM is their flight timing are quite convenient as a traveller. You arrive just in time for check in at the hotel. In contrast, other good airlines offering connecting flights from middle east meant waste of an entire day.

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Loved the hospitality on board too, but I definitely prefer flying during the day. Loved their return timings 😉

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Helps to know how our choices matter.

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Glad you thought so!

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Thanks for reading! Tried to make it interesting for those who don’t consider themselves #avgeeks 😉

  3. The unfortunate paradox. But maybe we always don’t have to travel so far away to have an adventure?

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Absolutely agree. But also a little unfair to let where you’re born decide what you can experience. Hate the paradox.

  4. Really makes me rethink about so many things! Always love trains over flights at least for domestic travel and when its impossible now i know to make the right choice of airline.

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Quite unsure about whether trains in India are really less emitting than flights – given that most are inefficient and powered by either diesel or electricity from coal.

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Thanks for reading!

  5. Great initiative by KLM. Every airline should follow this

  6. I love your blog! As full time travelers with no set home location, we are trying hard to figure out how to travel less by plane – 2020 will be our 5th year as nomads, and are planning to overland from Norway to “the Stans” and then to Iran.

    The sad truth of the matter is that it’s often cheaper (and more convenient) to travel by plane than any other way. 🙁

    Your site has been more than helpful!

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