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.
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