Flying on Award Tickets is Better for the Environment Than Paid Tickets

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 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.

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 »

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  1. I appreciate this analysis, Gary. It is good to be thinking about these issues.

    An extreme version of environmentally destructive flying is the milage run: an unneeded and generally unwanted paid trip designed to maximize miles flown.

  2. Gary, I have to call straight up BS on this one. Flying is a pretty environmentally damaging activity and trying to rationalise it with and a differential pricing argument doesn’t wash with me. It’s all about aggregate demand, which ever fare bucket you fly in you are contributing to the viability of that flight, profitability and viability rely on all buckets. Flights don’t work without filling them up and it could be either end of the demand spectrum that makes them viable. Award tickets are revenue, your share of the carbon (and other impacts) revue is tied to share the weight of the aircraft. You are making more of an impact the lower density the seating and the higher class you travel in.

    I recently had a hard think about this myself and I’ve been auditing my flying record since the turn of the millennium and I’m starting to buy Gold Standard accredited carbon credits to offset my flying for the past 16 years. Now this is an economic decision because I am trying to buy credits sooner, rather than later as I believe prices will rise in a a post-COP21 world.

  3. I know you’re trolling so do I get to troll too? Of course it goes without saying that if a large portion of Americans acted in concert and refused to participate in air travel because of its environmental impacts the economics of the business would change in kind.

    By your logic..

    I often like to earn frequent flier points at 5 per dollar but at a cost basis of about 1%, thus getting an 80% discount on air travel I would have spent money on anyway. I’m still a good guy right?

  4. Your theory is a great comfort to people who snatch low fares, but I find it unconvincing…

    The fewer passengers on a flight, the higher per person emission you bear. If the airline is flying several flights on the same route with lots of empty seats, they should pack them in one flight to lower emission, (if they care about the emission).

  5. But if the plane was going to go with empty seats and the airline offered one of those as an award ticket and you grabbed it, doesn’t that make your impact close to nil on that flight?

  6. Whoa! I would have thought that someone like @Gary, who is suspicious “liberals”, would not give a damn about the effects of human activities on the environment (aka climate science), which all leading conservative thinkers (e.g., George Will) believe is a hoax concocted by liberal academics…

  7. So the “Eat the Rich” California Uber Alles contingent is attempting to strike YET AGAIN.

    Well if you’ve participated enough in any type of Frequent Flyer program to earn any sort of Free Flight you’ve undoubtedly done so as part of a greater environmental conspiracy and we all know per YOUR Status as a “I’m not TOTALLY Broke” Nazi , you are attempting to remove the very portion of Ozone coverage that guards my own community garden in the Middle of Brookbeach.

    Yes you sir, there, you are the cause of this nation’s ills. It’s got nothing to do with us and our stupid californicated Boxer unions and their repeated attempts to make just about every mild mannered Darren in the states go Postal.

    It’s that guy over there. You know the one who can afford to buy the better bottle of wine for me but just won’t because he’s eh…. well you know… he’s privileged.

    They’re going to fly the flight and as actual practice has shown aint NO WAY an airline is going to schedule an entire flight simply to burn off actual members mileage obligations.

    For god’s sake, you think they care about the members? Hang around a little bit longer than that episode of Friends you caught on American and you’ll immediately recognize your lunacy.

  8. By the way, AIRLINES Already consolidate several flights into one. Do you really think that all the flights offered on Booble or Chipmunk in terms of your choice of time actually FLY?


  9. Hi Gary, out of curiosity, what are some routes where cargo revenue is more important than passenger revenue?

  10. Gary, thanks for bringing this up. Air travel is still small but a fast growing component of global carbon emissions and the carbon impact of flying is something that intelligent and morally conscientious flyers need to begin to consider.

  11. In defense of Gary, I will try to elaborate on his argument.
    First of all, having airlines fly more routes is what causes pollution. No one person causes pollution, since the airline won’t get an extra plane just for you. Of course, we have to think about the population as a whole. If everyone flew more, then the airline would introduce more flights and therefore more pollution. So you making the decision to fly does contribute to the pollution, in the sense that if everyone behaved like you, there would be more pollution.
    Now, let’s think about different types of flyers. Executive Evan needs to fly from JFK to HKG on certain days, on certain times. He will pay top dollar to be on the flight he wants. Because of people like Evan who want to fly at specific times, and are willing to pay for it, the airlines decide to add more flights between JFK and HKG. In fact, the planes usually have a bunch of empty seats, but they won’t reduce the number of flights so they can maximize the number of high-revenue tickets they sell. The Evans of the world are very bad for the environment.
    Churner Charlie doesn’t have much money, but he has lots of points from churning. He also wants to fly from JFK to HKG. But since he wants to fly on saver awards, he can’t be picky about what flight he goes on. Instead, he flies on the second flight leaving on the third Thursday of the month, since that’s when there was availability, because the airline predicts that the flight will have empty seats. The airline gets little revenue from Charlie. The airline will NOT add more flights to accommodate people like Charlie. If there were more Charlies, the airline would just give them seats that would otherwise be empty, instead of flying more planes.
    If there were thousands more charlies, there would be no more availability. Presumably some of these Charlies will purchase revenue tickets instead. But these would be cheap tickets, and the airline would not want to fly more planes (costing them lots of money) to accommodate them. Maybe they’ll introduce a weekly flight if the demand is high enough, and the Charlies will all adjust their schedules around this flight, so the airline can fly the plane full every time (maximizing efficiency). Either way, all these Charlies create at most a very small increase in the number of flights, compared to the Evans. So as Gary said, award flyers have a relatively small effect on the environment compared to those willing to pay full fare.


  12. This Christmas break I used frequent flyer miles to travel on sold-out flights (by booking far in advance) and flew to Asia. Without miles I would have done what I’ve been doing for the past six years, which is drive 30 minutes for dinner at my parents. Environmentally friendly — I think not!

    Also, I remember reading on a blog just how much extra fuel a bag caused to be burnt due to its weight. So an empty seat is always more environmentally friendly than one with a bag of meat and bones on it. From a pure environmental perspective a flights with empty seats destroys less than one whose feats are filled with award passengers.

    The economic reality is that frequent flyer programs increase emissions both directly (by putting more weight on planes) and indirectly by increasing demand for flying vs. other modes of travel.

    Oh, wait, did I just get trolled? Or is the author seriously self-delusional?

  13. Gary – thanks for being a blogger bringing up this important topic. I am not sure Your argument hold water and I tend to agree more with Ed. That said, somoeone must have done a study on this, even if airmiles where not part of the equation. The aviation industry (and shipping) was a topic of discussion in Le Bourget. They dodged a bullet by not being called out more heavily in the text.

  14. I do not think that “travel light” gets the premise, saying:

    “An extreme version of environmentally destructive flying is the milage run: an unneeded and generally unwanted paid trip designed to maximize miles flown.”

    Mileage running is viable (and it is generally not nearly as viable as conditions made it 5 to 8 years ago) because there was grossly excess capacity even in low fare buckets – that is, carriers extended sufficiently favorable fares because they anticipated that flights could go out with gobs of empty seats.

    In such a case the carbon impact of a mileage runner was not the AVERAGE carbon per passenger on a flight, but the MARGINAL carbon per passenger on the flight – you know, what carbon is necesary to get a 160 pound passenger from a to b.

    The most carbon dangerous passenger is the passenger whose flying encourages a carrier to upgauge to more gas guzzling equipment or add a frequency.

  15. @iahphx,

    LOL – You have to pay him $2000 now – to cover his huge losses trading carbon credits to some Russians and so he and Ed Begley can split the cost of a Tesla.

  16. So far no ones has addressed the likely mass numbers of Indians and Chinese being lifted out of poverty the next few years and who rightfully would like to emulate us westerners and fly on these great vacations. Can the environment sustain them acting like us? Are we more entitled than them?

  17. @Dave — as long as the Chinese masses fly on awards (e.g. by buying miles), the environment will be just fine according to Gary! LOL

  18. @ED:”I recently had a hard think about this myself and I’ve been auditing my flying record since the turn of the millennium”

    Um. which millennium was that?

    @Economic Guru: You’ve reduced us to a “bag of meat and bones?” You left out the fat.

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