Commentary: green test flights: airlines test everything--from renewable fuels, to carbon offsetting to ditching in-flight magazines to lighten their loads.

Author:Peterka, Amanda
Position:COMMENTARY
 
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The rising oil prices are hitting the airline industry especially hard. According to the International Air Transport Association, which tracks the price of jet fuel on a daily basis, gas has gone up by more than 100% over the past year. And it's good news for the environment--the high prices are causing airlines to rethink their fuel usage and look into ways to improve efficiency.

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The airline industry accounts for about 2-3% of total greenhouse gas emissions, according to statistics. Although it's nowhere near the emissions generated by the rest of the transportation industry, the problem is that more and more people fly each day. The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expects fuel usage to rise from its current level of 143 million annual tons to 496 million tons by the year 2050.

In the past 50 years planes have become at least 40% more efficient, but as more and more airlines declare bankruptcy, efforts to green the fleets are reaching new heights. Take Japan Airlines--the company has replaced some 30% of its fleet in the past five years with newer models, and those traveling to the land of the rising sun can watch an advertisement on flights about how the plane is being revamped to become more environmentally friendly. Continental Airlines has spent more than $16 billion to give its fleet more fuel efficiency--along with employing 13 full-time environmentalists.

The question is: are airlines doing this to save money, or are they really dedicated to reducing emissions and saving the environment? The standard response to both the environment and rising fuel costs is to tinker with existing technology, adding things such as fuel-saving winglets to airplanes, which help to prevent drag, or applying new methods of repainting and pretreatment of old planes that reduce the amount of chemicals used. Although fleets are being replaced, most still use the same type of fuel and fly with the same huge jet engines.

The airlines that have tested different types of fuels have done just that: they've tested different types of fuels. They have yet to replace traditional fuel in their commercial flights.

Here are a few airlines that have looked into alternative fuels:

* Qatar Airways was the first to fly with an alternative fuel in its engines--Shell GTL Jet Fuel. The fuel, which is a "gas-to-liquid" fuel, doesn't use oil, but the emissions from it are about the same as oil.

* Virgin Airways was the first commercial...

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