FactCheck: How green is EasyJet?
Updated on 11 May 2007
'If you care about the environment you should fly EasyJet.' Really?
"If you care about the environment you should fly EasyJet. We fly new aircraft, [and have] high passenger load factors which means we emit 27 per cent fewer emissions per passenger kilometre than a traditional airline."
Andy Harrison, Chief executive of EasyJet, Today Programme, BBC Radio 4, 9 May 2007
With low taxes on air travel making it possible to whiz across Europe for a weekend for less than an intercity train ticket, a low-cost airline seems an unlikely poster-child for environmental friendliness.
The CO2 emissions - seen as key to tackling global warming - from aviation might look small compared to those from some other industries, but they're of particular concern to campaigners.
Not least because aviation emissions are increasing quickly and air travel is less essential than, say, the environmental costs of running a hospital or transporting food around the country.
Now the budget carriers are hitting back. Ryannair claims to be Europe's most environmentally friendly airline. Meanwhile EasyJet says that flying with them will do less damage than taking a similar flight on an 'all-frills, free refills' airline.
But can we really hop aboard a cheap flight with a clear carbon conscience?
EasyJet's emissions claim is based on two factors: the number of seats in its planes, and the number of bums on those seats.
In the same way that we are encouraged to do a full load of washing rather than two smaller loads, it makes environmental sense to send planes up into the air as full as possible.
EasyJet's standard aircraft, the Airbus 319, would, according to the manufacturers, usually have 124 seats. However, EasyJet A319s fly with 156 seats by doing away with niceties such as spacious first-class cabins and devoting less space (and weight) to the likes of toilets, storage and galleys.
The airline also sells a relatively high proportion of those seats - its load factor (percentage of seats sold) was 84.8 per cent in 2006.
This compares to an average of 68.3 per cent (in 2005) for members of the Association of European Airlines, a 31-strong body that includes British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.
'Budget airlines are fuelling demand, creating new routes and getting people on to those planes.'Alice Bows, Aviation Researcher
Do the maths, and an EasyJet flight would sell around 132 seats per flight, while the hypothetical old-style European airline sells only 84 seats.
EasyJet reckons its plane would burn 23 per cent more fuel because of the weight of these extra passengers, but overall the greater number of people still gives a per-passenger efficiency saving, meaning that 27 per cent less fuel is used.
EasyJet has erred on the side of caution in its calculations, although issue can be taken with the number of seats on a traditional flight.
EasyJet has used the manufacturer's guideline, but other airlines can still make their own modifications, just as EasyJet has done. British Airways, for example, uses 132 seats - not as many as EasyJet, but more than the 124 used in the calculation.
Shades of grey
This isn't the only shade of grey; it becomes very hard to do a strict airline-by-airline comparison as there are so many potential variables to take into account, such as the different types of engines that can be used in different planes, or even the extra distance that passengers may have to travel to get to an out-of-town airport.
EasyJet announced earlier this week that its planes are getting slightly less full, with its load factor dropping to 83.1 per cent last month - a 3.3 percentage point decrease compared with April 2006.
In the same period, its total number of passengers has gone up by 10 per cent - to more than three million.
And it's this last figure that is more significant in environmental terms, as any increase in fuel efficiency has to contend with the massive increase in people taking the flights.
"Budget airlines are fuelling demand, creating new routes and getting people on to those planes," said Alice Bows, an aviation researcher at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.
"It's also mainly the middle classes who are flying, so it's not as though they're opening things up to a new field."
Fuel costs make up a higher proportion of the operating costs of a budget airline - around 20 per cent, rather than the 10 per cent typical for a flag carrier. This creates extra incentive to reduce the fuel used - which, Bows says, is more of a "happy accident" than something that should be heralded as too much of an eco-triumph.
As a recent IPCC report said, although there was some medium-term potential to mitigate aviation CO2 emissions by tinkering with operations and technology to increase fuel efficiency, any such improvements are "expected to only partially offset the growth of aviation emissions".
The most important question should really be whether the flight would otherwise have been taken, said Carey Newson, an independent consultant who co-authored a report on flying and the environment for Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute.
"Although low-cost airlines may be in their own terms more efficient, it's hard to say it's more environmental if they're increasing flights," she said.
FactCheck rating: 3
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EasyJet's business model keeps costs as low as possible, which means that the consumption of environment-hurting, carbon-emitting fuel is also kept as low, per passenger, as possible.
It also invests heavily in new planes, which are more energy-efficient than older stock.
But the success of this business model means that flying becomes more affordable and more planes go into the air, which doesn't help the environment.
The short-haul and domestic flights in which low-cost airlines specialise are also those journeys which are more likely to be made by other less-polluting forms of transport, such as bus or boat.
A less snappy, though more accurate, claim would be, "If you care about the environment and really have to fly, it's better to fly on a fuller plane than an emptier one".
But if you really care about the environment, it's questionable whether you should be flying at all, however efficient the plane.
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