Travel is Better for the Environment When You’re Getting a Good Deal on Airfare

I’ve been thinking a lot about travel providers seeking cost savings and cynically selling it with environmental claims. And I’ve been thinking about real environmental issues too. What do we owe future generations of people who do not exist today? What sorts of actions do we take today based on imperfect information?

These are all hard questions I think. And even when we figure it out the world is a lot more complicated than we often think of it. After all, as I contemplate fatherhood, isn’t having children the worst thing you can do for the environment, given the resources that will be consumed over their lifetime? And while most cars may burn fossil fuels, walking burns calories — and if you replace those calories with meat aren’t you doing something even worse for the environment than driving?

Similarly I think flying is complicated. Air travel emits carbon dioxide. More demand for air travel supports more flights, and thus more carbon dioxide emissions.

While the interaction of emissions and temperature change is complex, the particular mechanisms subject to debate amongst scientists, a simple model suggests that your air travel is bad for the environment. That may not hold in every case, and it’s highly unlikely that any one individual’s actions change airline schedules enough or that even if they did that incremental change would be noticeable enough even in the most advanced models. But taken together air travel is thought to be a negative for climate. So you get the blame.

It simply isn’t true though that every airline passenger and every ticket has the same contribution to emissions.

And we do know whether you have a high – or an exceptionally low – probability of affecting the number of flights, size of aircraft, and thus emissions.

  • If you’re pulling inventory out of a low fare bucket, the strong expectation is that there’s little effect at the margin on your buying the ticket because the airline expects to operate a flight that doesn’t come close to filling up. You aren’t going to cause there to be an extra flight.

  • If you’re pulling inventory out of a high fare bucket, if you’re traveling on a full Y fare, you can pretty much expect that the flight will be close to sold out (or that they’ll be flying it because of a small number of passengers like you). The airline may even be willing to risk displacing another passenger in the short term in exchange for your higher fare… and your ticket cost is high enough to potentially influence behavior on the part of the airline.

As a full fare passenger you’re part of a small subgroup of passengers paying the highest fares that airlines crave and will make their decisions based on the relative mix of such passengers rather than on passengers as a whole.

In contrast, if you’re in a low fare bucket the airline is scooping up some incremental revenue for a flight they’re planning to operate for other reasons.

Reality is even a little bit more complicated than that. Cargo has to come into play, too (especially on international routes). Regardless of what you pay and what fare class you’re booking in, there are flights that operate because of cargo and not because of passengers, the passengers are all at the margin.

If you’re traveling on an award ticket at the saver level that’s the extreme limit of the belief on the part of the airline that they would (a) otherwise operate the flight and (b) that your seat would go unsold.

If you are traveling on saver-level award tickets you can be quite confident your environmental impact is quite small, limited for the most part to the extra fuel resulting from your extra weight on board the aircraft (and quite possibly outweighed by the fuel you’d be consuming in your car were you not flying that day).

Quite simply, award passengers aren’t contributing to an airline’s decision to operate more flights and generate greater emissions except years ago when Air Canada ran Hawaii flights only for loyalty program members.

It does seem that the better deal you get on your ticket, the better you can feel about the environmental impact of your travel.

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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »



  1. Why bother about deep thinking on these issues. Do the easy. The UN and the global community of nations has got you covered. Just cite them like the 10 commandments. The Enlightened can work in unison for the good of the world.

    Borg I mean UN Sustainability Goals
    The 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) to transform our world:
    GOAL 1: No Poverty
    GOAL 2: Zero Hunger
    GOAL 3: Good Health and Well-being
    GOAL 4: Quality Education
    GOAL 5: Gender Equality
    GOAL 6: Clean Water and Sanitation
    GOAL 7: Affordable and Clean Energy
    GOAL 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth
    GOAL 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
    GOAL 10: Reduced Inequality
    GOAL 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities
    GOAL 12: Responsible Consumption and Production
    GOAL 13: Climate Action
    GOAL 14: Life Below Water
    GOAL 15: Life on Land
    GOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong Institutions
    GOAL 17: Partnerships to achieve the Goal.

    Unfortunately, nothing about flying. After all, per Spock: “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” “Landru seeks tranquility. Peace for all. The universal good.” Actually, Kirk is always saving Utopian societies from themselves. Maybe if we get global governance, Kirk will pay us a visit.

  2. I wish this were true, but you’re only talking about the upper margin of potentially adding another flight. Aren’t some cheap fares on struggling flights that airlines are trying to establish, or on recently expanded frequencies, and enough people not booking those flights could cause their cancellation? The airline may expect to operate the flight anyway for a while–for route network reasons or commitments to an airport/city for example–but sometimes not booking cheap flights is what causes a high-per-person-emissions flight to stop taking off altogether.

  3. I’m glad you pointed out that think this may make award & frugal travelers FEEL better because I can’t imagine this does anything more than make travelers just feel better. It’s akin to feeling better about the emissions from a gas guzzling car because you’re joining a carpool. Underlying problem is still there. Glad you wrote on this though because it’s one of the issues I have with travel today – just the massive amounts of emissions from aircraft, jet fuel, etc. Alaska Air and I think United did some work with biofuels on their planes, but hopefully in this next decade we’ll see much better cleaner fuel burn, and reduced emissions from planes. That will actually feel good, at least for me. And maybe soon after we can get solar powered planes, but one can dream lol.

Comments are closed.