The EPA is About to Regulate the Airlines. And It’s Much Ado About Nothing.

The EPA’s pending ‘endangerment finding’ that planes emit sufficient greenhouse gases to contribute to global warming and thus endanger health is something that’s been in the works at least since 2010 and won’t take anyone by surprise.

It’s also likely not to much matter for US airlines, and regulations they ultimate issue are likely to be met by the vast majority of commercial aircraft already.

US airlines have actually been lobbying for some form of regulation, as a means to stave off more stringent rules that environmental lobbyists want. They expect that the world is moving towards regulation anyway, they might as well get ahead of the curve, and just don’t want to be more heavily regulated than their competitors.

The E.P.A.’s finding would lay the groundwork for the United States to adopt the emissions standard being negotiated by the International Civil Aviation Organization. That group aims by next year to set new emissions standards for airlines, which have said that national rules would do little to curb emissions, given the industry’s global reach.

…“As aviation is a global industry, with airlines and aircraft operators operating internationally and aircraft manufacturers selling their aircraft in international markets, it is critical that aircraft emissions standards continue to be agreed at the international level,” said Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade group. “Any regulatory action E.P.A. takes must be consistent with both the agency’s authority under the Clean Air Act, as well as the expected I.C.A.O. standard.”

It’s generally older and less fuel efficient aircraft that are cheaper for startup discount airlines to buy and if they can use environmental rules to shut out new competitors then from their perspective so much the better.

Aviation is called “the fastest-growing cause of climate change” but that’s largely in China and to a lesser extent India, which the EPA doesn’t touch.

Chinese domestic flights have grown more than 20-fold over the past two decades. Boeing has predicted that China will need 200,000 more pilots and over 12,000 more planes over the next two decades.

On the other hand the number of aircraft and flights in the US isn’t growing substantially. At American Airlines, for instance, they’re retiring old MD80s and replacing them with more modern aircraft, and the largest driver of capacity growth over the past year has been adding more seats into existing planes.

A low end estimate suggests that commercial aircraft have become about 70% more fuel efficient over the past five decades and continue to become even more so — and have done that even without EPA requirements that are likely to enshrine in rule what already exists. A more aggressive estimate suggests even more progress has been made:

The industry, which she said accounts for 2 percent of U.S. manmade greenhouse gas emissions, has improved fuel efficiency 120 percent between 1978 and 2014, “saving 3.8 billion metric tons” of carbon dioxide emissions. That is nearly the equivalent of removing 23 million cars from the roads in each of those years.

The EPA’s proposed endangerment finding will take a year to finalize, and actual implemention of regulations will take even longer (not least of which because there will be court challenges).

Ultimately it’s likely to be more symbolic than substantive, requiring that airlines and aircraft manufacturers do what they’ve already done and continue to do what they’re already doing. As with most environmental issues, whether or not progress is made is likely to depend far more on China than the U.S.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. If the EPA regulates cars its amazing that it has taken so long to regulate planes. The proposed regulations seem to be not a regulation of airlines but regulation of airplane manufacturers. Just as EPA regulation of cars regulates the car manufacturers not the custoners who buy the cars. Is there something I’m missing here and the EPA will regulate airlines?

  2. Each country has their own responsibility to address climate change. Not having jurisdiction in China does not mean US should fail to act. By moving forward we motivate others.

  3. Gary: certainly AA and others are moving towards newer, more efficient planes, but you have Delta buying every second-hand MD 80/90 on the market in the world. Heck, even the Chinese airlines dump them off to Delta. Where does this factor into Delta’s pseudo-liberal imagine?

  4. They will long term likely do something like they’ve done to my 2010 diesel truck. The EPA required a pdf filter, catiletic converters, low sulfur fuel, etc. So they took a truck that gets 20 mpg and puts out a moderately low level of polution. In return it gets 14 mpg and uses precious metals and more fossil fuels. There is a balance.

  5. Reaching an an emissions agreement at ICAO is a big deal, as that was the compromise that was worked out with the EU to allow TATL flights to continue. A couple of years ago, the EU’s attempt to require all flights departing or arriving in the EU plus Norway and Switzerland to purchase allowance for its Emissions Trading Scheme for the ENTIRE length of its route (i.e., an SFO-FRA flight would have to pay for all the time that it was over North America or in international air space), led Congress to pass a retaliatory law that could have put airlines in the position that flying would have put them in violation of either US or EU law. (China, Russia, India, Oz, NZ, and others also vigorously protested and retaliated in other ways.) The compromise that was worked out was to negotiate a global emissions deal by the next ICAO Congress and the EU called a time-out in its enforcement of its ETS for flights that were not entirely within the EU.

  6. The only thing that is going to change is this: every passenger on every flight will have to pay an “offset fee” which will go into some trading scheme where a handful of those in power get rich. This will cost you anywhere from $100 to several thousand, depending on the class of service and the length of the flight (see the UK’s air passenger duty for an example of how it will be sliced). This will do absolutely nothing for the environment, the only effect it will have will be to make a few of the players rich, and flights will become more costly for everyone. You will have to pay these fees for award tickets out-of-pocket. Just like flying British Airways departing from London, that “free ticket” is going to become v e r y expensive. “Fuel surcharges” + taxes & fees + so-called “carbon offsets” will be big money.

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