If You’re Flying on Awards and Cheap Tickets, You’re Not Bad for the Environment

Tyler Cowen once wrote that when you fly, you may be more expensive for airlines operating more flights, and concomitant emissions.

A simple model of route expansion is that higher demand increases the number of total flights by some probability. For the system as a whole, the decisive flying unit has to come somewhere and there is no reason why, on average, it can’t be you. In other words, at least in stochastic terms you can’t escape the blame.

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

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

In contrast, if you’re pulling inventory out of a high fare bucket, for coach fares at the extreme end 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… or at least that the 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 they’re just 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. 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. H

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 cost of fuel driven by having your weight on board the aircraft (and quite possibly outweighed by the fuel you’d be consuming 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.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. I have to disagree with this logic. Basically, you just have to suck it up that your flying is a pretty environmentally damaging activity, although becoming less so win every new generation of aircraft. So if you do fly and you do car about the impact you’re having, think about how you can reduce your impact in other areas of your life – drive a more efficient car or use transit more, put some solar panel on your roof, eat a bit less meat, etc. etc.

  2. My favorite part is how the so-called environmentalists love to have their world-is-coming-to-an-end conferences in such far flung locales as Rio. The UN is an expert in these fantasy “summits”. Tax dollars from around the world pay to fly these stooges in to exotic locations, by the thousands, so they can reach a consensus that everyone should give up civilized life, with the exception of them, which is justified by the greater good of their fine work.

  3. @Ed flying is definitely getting more fuel efficient, from the aircraft to the fuel itself, but what’s your disagreement? you don’t actually say. thanks!

  4. @robert you should do your research before making such false claims about environmentalists, who are in agreement with 99% of scientists on climate change. The conferences in these so called ‘Exotic’ places like Rio are there for a reason. If you looked up what they actually did during the conference, they discussed the issues relating to indigenous people, (a huge issue in Brazil) and the issue of suatainable transportation in growing cities, like Rio and São Paulo.

  5. My disagreement with the argument really stems from the idea that one dollar is more important than another to airlines making their decisions on whether to fly planes. In a network system, individual flights don’t even have to be marginal generators of revenue as long as they support the revenue of the network as a whole, a good example of this is BA apparently running a number of loss making short haul routes in Europe to support profitable long haul ones. So saying a cheaper seat is less influential in the decision to fly a plane is not 100% the case.

    One could argue that the availability of cheap seats (awards included) is the source of marginal profits where as the expensive seats pay the costs of flying the plane in the first place. If cheap seats weren’t a source of profit, we’d see much smaller planes and much smaller airports. US airline deregulation is a case in point, prices go down, demand and supply go up leading to more direct emissions and more lifecycle emissions from the construction of airports (concrete manufacturing is super-emitting).

    Add to this that, we as readers of this blog, probably all favour premium cabin travel, and if we wanted to be as efficient as possible we’d fly planes 100% super dense economy.

    Anyway the sum total of all of this is I don’t think we can assuage our guilt about our contributions to the Maldives sinking beneath the waves by arguing that distressed inventory is non-emitting.

    I am not one to subscribe to the idea that the only way to save the world we have to reduce ourselves to eating lentils in the dark. Far from it; the only way we can persuade the world to combat the real and pressing danger of anthropogenic climate change is by doing it whilst simultaneously maintaining and improving standards of living. It is, however encumbrance on all of us to make sensible choices. It’s very easy for me to choose not to have a car and use transit, for others it might mean choosing a hybrid over a V8. In flying pick the newer planes.

    @Robert conferences have to be somewhere and Rio might be further for Europeans and Asians but it’s pretty convenient for Africans, North and South Americans. There’s only so many cities in the world that can host major international conferences. As I have intimated above, it’s not about forcing people to give up the civilised life, it’s the much harder challenge of combatting real and major issues with implications for our collective survival whilst maintaining and improving our standard of living. Of course, if you definition of the civilised life revolves around being able to drive a 15mpg car and play golf in the desert then you may be disappointed.

  6. @Ed to say that BA is losing money on short haul to make money on long haul is simply to say they’re doing the accounting wrong. They’re attributing the revenue to long haul, but saying they wouldn’t have the revenue without short haul.

    But that’s all sort of beside the point. You suggest that airlines don’t value one dollar over another dollar, but it’s not $1 vs $1, it’s $5000 vs $500. This is why airlines in the US are moving to revenue-based frequent flyer accrual. They very much do value the $5000 ticket over the $500 ticket. They make money on the big revenue flyers, and then fill the marginal seats.

    One model, as you suggest, would be to pack planes as tightly as possible. And some airlines do that. But those that don’t, don’t, because they can sell the more luxurious seats at a significant premium. Sometimes they have a few extra empty seats. If they fill those seats with an award passenger, or don’t, it doesn’t affect the decision of whether or not to fly the route. They’ll either fly it, including with the seats empty, if they can sell enough seats at a huge premium. And if they can’t they’ll eventually kill the route.

    But the decision to fly or not to fly by the award passenger doesn’t affect the decision of the airline to fly, or to add capacity.

    In fact, a greater % of award passengers on a route, or more precisely significant award availability on a flight, is suggestive that the flight might be considered for the chopping block. Flying awards correlates with less air travel not more.

  7. Actually, I had this conversation with a friend a while back, and I did back of the envelope calculations for how much extra fuel is consumed by an additional passenger for a standard one day mileage run, eg an additional ~150 lb weight added to the plane. To my surprise, it turned out to be more vs what I would have spent if on the ground – not a huge amount in absolute terms, but say ~double my regular energy consumption. I think unless you would otherwise spend 5 hrs driving vs taking a plane ride, you are definitely using up more energy in absolute terms. So even taking your assumption at face value (cheap tickets & award tickets have zero effect on an airline’s route planning), your headline is inaccurate.

    That said, I didn’t significantly cut back on my flying. 🙂 But I don’t pretend that I am not being a bad environmental steward by doing a lot of mileage runs and short trips.

  8. But having made the capital investment in an aircraft the airline is unlikely to remove that aircraft from service or use it any less intensively unless it is very old or otherwise competently uneconomic to run. So it will just be shifted to another route. Airlines, and I’m sure their shareholders are thankful for this, are in the business of maximising returns on their assets so just because a seat goes for a minimal number of dollars one day it doesn’t mean that seat will disappear the next, it will just go somewhere else.

    Please note, I’m not arguing you shouldn’t fly, I’m just arguing that from the view of emissions a flight is a flight, with the caveat that a premium seat is more emitting than an economy one.

  9. @Ed an otherwise-empty premium seat is not more emitting than an economy seat. Emissions from the plane will be the same (only relevant factor incremental fuel burn due to your personal weight, which is negligible) either way. And if you are taking a seat that would have flown anyway, that would have been empty you contribute absolutely nothing to emissions.

  10. Agreed, but it is the overall demand for flying which is generating supply of seats and causing emissions. Airlines use their pricing regimes to satisfy marginal demand at a range of price points. Even award seats are part of that structure. In the short run that seat would have flown anyway but in the long run the existence of that seat is due to overall market demand. If demand goes away then so do seats, either because airlines shed capacity or go out of business.

    There’s plenty of reasons to feel good about award travel but trying to stretch those to being guilt free about emissions is not one of them.

  11. @Ed precisely “it is the overall demand for flying which is generating supply of seats” but filling a seat which would go out empty otherwise has zero impact at the margin, because it doesn’t affect the demand for paid travel one whit.

  12. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. I think over the fact that an award or cheap seat has ‘zero impact at the margin’. If it did, why offer them at all and incur the costs of extra fuel and catering (among other things), or why not fly smaller planes that only cater for those who by at a premium over the short run marginal cost of operating the flight?

    The fact remains that flying is environmentally damaging to some degree (as is pretty much everything we do) and we each have to use our individual ethical frameworks to decide how we fit that fact into our lives.

  13. Your logic is flawed in many ways. For example: if all those people in low fare buckets would not fly at all, the airline would fly smaller aircraft or less frequently.

  14. I thought this article was an April Fool’s joke, but I guess we’re a few months too early.

  15. Thanks Ed for your thoughtful and reasoned response to this post. I think that whether or not award seats or low-cost seats can be demonstrated to have a (marginally) lower environmental impact is not really the point. You point out that we all ll need to be cognizant of the environmental impact of our decisions , and I couldn’t agree more. And truth be told, those of us in the points game do, I would argue, fly more often (not just in a better class of service) than we would if we were paying for all our tickets. Because our cost is less, we are flying further and we are flying more often – and we have a bigger carbon footprint than if we didn’t fly. So let’s acknowledge that, and make conscious choices – do what we can to limit the impact we all have. Fly when it is important (but mileage runs? No way, not for me) and be conscious of ways you can offset that impact – smaller car, drive less, turn the furnace down, use alternative fuels etc). But let’s not kid ourselves, there’s nothing green about occupying an airplane seat.

  16. I don’t believe for a second that the number of available seats would stay exactly the same if the 5-6% of them filled by award tickets were empty.

    This would be the only scenario whereby the environmental impact would be limited to the incremental fuel etc.

    But I don’t believe it for a moment. Most airlines offer awards on ALL flights to appease regulators, and therefore size capacity slightly higher than where it would otherwise be.

    Suck it up. Your hobby is bad for the environment, even at the margin.

  17. I also disagree with this article. Add all up the revenue Delta collects from SkyMiles redemptions (on the saver level) in a year. A ton of miles liability is wiped from their books when those tickets are redeemed. That’s revenue to their bottom line. Now remove all of that revenue. Is the airline still profitable? Do all of its decisions still pencil out? I’d venture to say no.

  18. This blog post represents Gary’s OPINION, not fact. But it also seems to ignore more than half the issue – the accrual of miles that fund redemptions.

    Gary asserts that awards have “low marginal impact”. Plenty of airline and non-airline people disagree, including me, but set that aside.

    To have points for that award, you have to fly (or buy credit cards, or most realistically some combination of the above). Net net, if you are flying an award, you’ve most likely flown plenty of other flights before too. If you’re earning faster, you’re certainly flying more frequently and often more expensive fares too (the non-guilt-free ones, per Gary).

    So the logical next conclusion (largely accepting Gary’s original thinking) is,”If you are flying an award ticket, your environment impact on that individual flight is low by my argument. But you flew many flights before, and you had lots of environmental impact then. And, if you are able to accrue enough points to fly premium awards a lot, then you’re doing a lot of environment damage in your accrual, but I’m going to totally ignore that and only say that your redemption is guilt-free.”

    One of Gary’s “environmental guilt-free” redemptions costs probably dozens of “guilty” trips first.

  19. @AS this isn’t opinion, it’s an argument about how behavior influences emissions, you can disagree with the mechanism but most folks here are just saying they disagree without offering any justification or explanation for where the analysis is flawed.

    You are 100% correct that someone flying expensive revenue fares is contributing to the emissions from flying. That’s implied by my argument.

    This is not AT ALL an argument to say ‘anyone who flies on awards has no culpability’ because if they also fly and earn lots of miles on revenue fares, especially expensive revenue fares, THOSE TRIPS would be quite culpable.

    It’s not a moral excuse for an overall bundle of activity, it’s an analysis of the marginal impact of specific kinds of trips.

    Of course there are plenty of folks reading who generate all or the vast vast majority of miles through credit cards and other means. I am not one of those people.

  20. The plane’s still going to fly, whether I’m on it or not, so when I travel, I don’t feel the least bit bad, nor do I think anyone else should.

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