← Back

How to Fly Sustainably: 6 Tips to Cut Your Carbon “Flight” Print

Marley Flueger
October 31, 2022

You could end today on the other side of the world. Or zip across the country to kiss your grandma goodnight. You could even hit the skies just to skip a boring drive – all you need is the right plane ticket. 

Aviation has revolutionized human travel. Today, anywhere - and everywhere - is closer and more accessible than ever before. The problem? It’s tough to fly sustainably. 

The aviation industry produces around 2.5% of global carbon emissions. This may seem like a small share, but it’s rising 1.5 times quicker than predicted. With passenger numbers set to double by 2037, there’s no slowdown in sight.

Just 1% of humans generate more than half of aviation emissions. In contrast, 90% of people will never step foot on a plane. While the benefits of flying are enjoyed by only a few, we’re all vulnerable to climate change. 

Air travel is a powerful lever by which we can influence the carbon economy. That’s why, today, we’re unpacking how to fly sustainably. 

Is sustainable air travel possible?

Unfortunately, truly sustainable air travel is not yet possible. While fuel economy is improving throughout the aviation industry, flying is still inherently carbon-intensive. Advancements in biofuels and electric planes could cut aviation emissions dramatically, but they’re still a long way from large-scale adoption. 

There are certainly ways to reduce your personal “flight” print – but flying less still has the greatest impact. Instead of taking to the skies next time you travel, consider a greener alternative.

What is the most sustainable way to travel?

After walking and biking, shared transportation is almost always the most sustainable way to travel. Buses, trains, and carpooling all increase the number of people in a vehicle – which reduces your individual footprint.

Even driving solo can be more environmentally friendly than a short or mid-distance flight, and longer road trips can be greener than flying if you travel with friends. That’s because every additional passenger cuts your individual impact.

This emissions calculator can help you determine the carbon impact of different modes of transport.

How to Fly Sustainably in 6 Simple Steps

If you’ve decided air travel is your best option, you can still take steps to reduce your impact. As consumers, we can choose to:

  1. Fly economy
  2. Fly direct
  3. Choose newer aircraft
  4. Fly budget airlines
  5. Pick eco-friendly airports
  6. Reduce day-off impact

(1) Fly Economy

In economy, each seat takes up less space, so more passengers can fit. The more people there are on a plane, the lower the emissions are for each passenger. When you fly economy, you send a signal to airlines that you prioritize efficiency.

Prefer priority seating? Studies show Studies show your legroom isn’t the only thing with a higher price tag. Business class seats can have 3x higher emissions due to the space and resources they require. First-class? Up to 9x higher.

(2) Fly Direct

Takeoff and landing account for 25% of the emissions of a standard flight. For shorter journeys, it’s even higher.

Recent research found that avoiding layovers cuts 100 kg of CO₂e off a person’s flight emissions. That’s the equivalent of powering a refrigerator for a whole year!

(3) Choose newer aircraft

Airplanes become more efficient every year, so flying in a newer plane can reduce the footprint of that flight. New planes like the A320neo or Boeing 787-8 use ~15% less fuel than old ones.

Some sites make it easy to find flights with more efficient planes. For instance, Skyscanner’s “greener choice”  label uses fuel efficiency, carrying capacity, and distance to calculate low-emission options.

(3) Fly Economy

Individual carbon emissions are calculated by the space a passenger takes up on an aircraft. When you fly economy-class, you swap the extra legroom for a lower footprint. Prefer priority seating? Studies show your ticket isn’t the only thing with a higher price tag. Flying business class can increase your impact three-fold. First-class? Up to nine times higher.

(4) Fly Budget Airlines

Budget airlines boost efficiency by fitting more people onto each plane. With more people on a plane, the emissions per person is lower. Pay-as-you-go add-ons like food, drinks, and bags also minimize weight and waste onboard.

(5) Pick Eco-Friendly Airports

Globally, 419 airports are actively reducing their operational emissions by implementing projects like electric buses, energy-efficient lighting, and clean energy. Airports that meet these criteria will have the Airport Carbon Accreditation stamp. You can find a list of these airports on their site.

Find eco-friendly airports →

(6) Reduce Day-Of Impact

On the day of your flight, fly lighter with these tips:

  • Lighten your luggage: More weight on the plane requires more fuel. Pack light.
  • Pre-order veggie: Go plant-based for in-flight meals to keep impact low.
  • Bring reusables: Airlines generated 6.7 million pounds of cabin waste in 2018. Bring your own bottle and utensils.
  • Go paperless: Millions of people fly every day. If every passenger used digital tickets, we’d avoid significant paper waste

How to Offset your Flight

While flying completely sustainably is still not possible, you can help compensate for the flight’s emissions you can't fully reduce. Carbon offsets allow governments, businesses, and individuals to contribute directly to programs working to remove C02e from the atmosphere. Your offset can support reforestation, renewable energy, direct carbon capture, energy efficiency improvements, and more.

It can be tempting to check “offset flight emissions” when you buy your ticket – and get on with your day. Unfortunately, there are a lot of questionable offset programs out there, and airlines might be underestimating your flight emissions. It’s not always easy to tell the good from the bad, but it helps if you know what to look for. We break it down in our blog How to Buy Carbon Offsets for your Flight.

If you decide to offset your flight travel, we have you covered. Commons offers accurate emissions calculations paired with carefully vetted portfolio of carbon offsetting projects. It's easy, accurate, and impacful.

Offset your Flight with Commons →
Marley Flueger
October 31, 2022


Twice a month we'll send you practical tips to live sustainably while saving money.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Get The App

rewards for green living

Earn rewards when you shop at sustainable brands that are measurably lowering emissions.

Commons Earth icon

Let’s stay connected

Get tips, guides, and inspiration for low-carbon living.
Thanks! You're now subscribed to the Commons newsletter.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.