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Flying Green!

Let's communicate environment conservation tips to airplane passengers as an in-flight featured presentation.

Photo of Jaime Gusching

Written by

Airlines have the unique opportunity to communicate ways to go green to captive passenger audience. As the flight is boarding, the TV monitors inform passengers how to conserve resources during the flight and afterwards in their daily lives. After the mandatory safety presentation, a short video plays to encourage passengers to use electronic boarding passes and thereby eliminate paper waste and save trees. The EPA has already produced the content in these short podcasts

Additionally, airlines could reward individuals who forgo a plastic cup by bringing their own reusable water containers with airline miles or points.

Flight attendants could ditch the straws and coffee stirrers by pouring the requested amount of cream and sugar first, then mixing in the coffee. This practice would eliminate single serving creamer containers. 

What community does this idea benefit and who are the main players?

Airlines stand to gain significant cost savings by going green and encouraging travelers to follow suite. One source ( claims the cost of processing a paper ticket is approximately $10, while processing an e-ticket costs only $1. In the near future, e-tickets could save the airline industry $3 billion a year. If airlines present tips and tricks for going green to their customers, they may take more significant steps towards reducing their carbon footprint—such investing in hybrid aircrafts, recycling engine wash water, using environmentally friendlier cabin materials (a la Southwest). Hybrid aircrafts:( Southwest's green initiatives:

How does your idea specifically help your community rapidly transition to renewables?

Based on the premise that knowledge is power, this idea is another avenue to inform and persuade travelers to mitigate their carbon footprint. According to a New York Times article, for many, air travel is most serious "environmental sin". "One round-trip flight from New York to Europe or to San Francisco creates a warming effect equivalent to 2 or 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person. The average American generates about 19 tons of carbon dioxide a year." How would people's behavior change if they were told at the beginning of their flight the direct consequences of their travel? Let's give passengers actionable ways to neutralize their negative environmental impact. (( )

What early, lightweight experiment can you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

As a result of this thought exercise, I'm going to bring my own reusable water bottle during my travels and not use the plastic cups. Since Southwest airlines seem to be on the vanguard of green airlines, writing a letter to request a featured green presentation on flights may be the place to start.

What skills, input or guidance are you keen to connect with from the OpenIDEO community to help you build out or refine your idea further?

I would love the OpenIDEO community to evaluate my idea keeping in mind their own travel experiences and whether or not it's realistic for passengers to modify their expectations and behavior. How can we encourage airlines to stop using plastic cups and switch to compostable ones? Do we really need the napkins or stirrers. Could they be made available only by request?

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This idea emerged from:

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Photo of ted selker

The biggest ways passengers can save energy is by not bringing things with them, it takes 100 pounds of fuel to drag 150 pounds on a long haul flight: Forgo magazines , i go to asia with a 20 pound carry on for 3 weeks. wash your clothes daily don't bring more than 3 pairs of anything!

Photo of Natalie Lake

Hi Jaime,

I love this idea! I think there are even more ways that people could help airlines and ways in which airlines on their own could reduce their waste. For example, airlines could opt to serve out of 2 liters instead of individualized soda cans (I've seen this on a few airlines in other countries), they also could serve out of larger refillable peanut and pretzel containers as opposed to serving individually wrapped snack packages. On top of this, people could opt to bring their own plastic silverware for the occasional meal, use reusable napkins etc.

For international travel, there could be some sort of smart phone application where people fill out their customs forms instead of having to waste a sheet of paper. It would be nice if airlines could come up with some sort of incentive plan to be eco-friendly like grocery stores do (5 cents of credit towards a snack-box or something like that for each eco-friendly thing you do?)

This idea has really peaked my interest and I feel like there are so many more ways we could make travel more sustainable. I'd love to collaborate with you more on this!

Photo of Jaime Gusching

Hi again, Natalie!

I like the idea of bulk containers and 2-liter bottles. During my travels in Turkey, the buses used 2-liter bottles and paper cups (at least they were compostable!). I also like the online customs form. An airline company could even Invest in inexpensive tablets instead of magazines, menus, or brochures.

What if there was a big award to the first airline that went paperless?

Photo of Natalie Lake

I think that is a great idea! Delta keeps talking about how they are the airline with the most wifi capabilities, most this and most that. I honestly had not heard of that tax ( that I posted about earlier) until my friend and I were chatting about this challenge and this particular idea and he told me about it and sent me a link!

Currently Delta has delta app for your phone where you can watch movies free or rent other movies/tv shows etc, so it would be nice if they could do the same thing with magazines, newspapers etc. Many airplanes also have those ipad like devices on the backs of each seat and since they already show the safety video on the screen in front of you, why not make the safety card accessible in front of you on the screen via a menu option?

Cool ideas!

Photo of Angelique Ruiter-Bouwhuis

Hi Jaime, perfect ideas! have been thinking about this for a long time. How about urging airliners to use sustainable cups, like this one that even after usage at one point is biodegradable. This same technology could be used for serving dinner on bamboo plates.

And how about serving snacks that aren't packed in plastic?


Photo of James (Gien) Wong

Good ideas Jaime, but the best idea would, unfortunately, not make airlines very happy...don't fly. Take a train or bus. Carbon footprint for flying is very high:

Professor Kevin Anderson of Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research doesn't fly at all....just takes trains. In his presentation "Ostrich or Phoenix", he mentions that 1 to 5% of the population are responsible for 40 to 60% of emissions. This is the strategic group of people to target if we want rapid decarbonization (and we do want that if we are going to stay below 2 Deg C). So who makes up this group? He mentions a number of general criteria including anyone who earns over 30K UK pounds a year and anyone who takes regular airplane trips.

Not only the flying but the airplanes themselves have enormous embodied energy costs since they use the most refined metals and tons of electronics.

I suspect that airlines wouldn't want to include this information on their public broadcast however.

In the whole scheme of things, there are millions of things one can do but if one focuses on the small things but don't address the big ones, then we are just greenwashing ourselves and rearranging deck chairs on the Titantic.

The unfortunate reality is that the level of decarbonization we must achieve in a matter of a few years in order to stay under the already too high 2 Dec C target is beyond the imagination of the average citizen or politician. According to Anderson, we need 10% decarbonization per annum until we reach zero emissions. What does 10% per annum look like? When the Russian economy went into a near total collapse a few years ago, it only attained a 5% rate of decarbonization. No government on the planet would agree to such steep measures as it would essentially mean zero economic growth and the world currently operates on a system of indefinite economic growth (which is itself, of course pretty much unsustainable).

What's required to keep the planet from spinning into a completely unknown state is going to be pretty fundamental behavioral shifts. Can we foresee a future of very limited driving, air travel, electricity use at home?

Photo of Natalie Lake

Hey Jaime,

I was thinking about your idea some more and you know what would be a cool future project? To make a "green" airport. Airports (most) are one of those rare establishments that are open all day long. That is a lot of electricity! Yet you don't see many solar panels or turbines at airports. So I was thinking about their carbon footprint and after thinking about this for awhile, I googled it and found this...

A few of the airports' master plans are available to see if you want to see what they are focusing on to become more sustainable.

Also you might be interested in hearing about some of the initiatives airlines are already "taking under their wings" to be more sustainable. Like did you know that KLM was using a biofuel, jet fuel mix for a few of their flights?

hope these inspire you with some more ideas for your idea!

Photo of Jaime Gusching

You're right, Natalie! I couldn't agree more. Again, the information is there for those committed to digging.

But what if each airport had an environmental grade on the basis of their sustainability efforts? What if each airline had a grade for that matter?

What if those grades were public knowledge and, for those environmental stewards, were worn as a badge of honor?

Photo of Natalie Lake

Her Jaime,

I think it would be really cool if airports became LEED certified. For example, SFO wants their new terminal to be gold certified.

LEED only would work here in the US But if you want to know what it is:

IDEO also did a really cool project with LEED that I'm posting if you are interested in LEED and I think it would be super cool if these LEED plaques were to be incorporated into more airports pursuing LEED certifiaction.

It would be really nice if there was some sort of universal certification but that may be a slight pipe dream haha. Also you might be interested in seeing this ranking of all companies (including airlines) through the DJSI (Dow Jones Sustainability Index) For example, KLM is currently leading for airlines according to this list.

It seems like some of these grades and ideas already exist, and just need to become more publicly recognized (like Delta's tax that no one has heard of.) I'm very curious why airlines aren't trying to make a bigger splash through their sustainability, it seems like a lot of these ideas could also save them money. (For example, I think larger bins of pretzels would save them money but I wonder if there are some FDA regulations that prevent them from doing this.) Okay, I'm rambling sorry, but your idea brings up a lot of interesting questions about our society!

Photo of YuYou Ling

What is the angle of communication? What is the story to tell the passengers?
reducing the waste footprint might end up costing the airline more, but yet passengers might misunderstand that ditching packaged sugar or creamer actually cuts cost.

Reducing the carbon footprint is the more important aspect, air carrier alliances have helped to make flights more efficient by transporting the maximum amount of passengers per journey. However as air travel becomes cheaper and more intense, people will have the urge to take multiple holidays, leading to more flights and increased footprint.
We need to work towards a cultural change of taking less redundant flights, and perhaps even maximizing holidays so that the need for extra flights to a similar area is reduced.

Monetary reward is a quick way to get people started, but ideally we need to speak to them emotionally to spark off a change in mentalities.

Transparency is important also, because if it does happen that a more efficient system is implemented in the airline company, making costs of flights lower. It has to make sure the people do not assume it is keeping the extra earnings. If they do not lower the prices, they should ideally provide other benefits(hopefully environmentally friendly). Because from a marketing perspective, people expect the equal value for the price they paid before the improvements

Photo of Jaime Gusching

Hello YuYou!

Thank you for detailed and thoughtful message.

The story angle is that "everyone needs to do their part to offset their travel--from airlines to passengers."

I believe if airlines publicly promote this message during in-flight presentations, it will spark a mentality shift to further minimize other environmental damage (such as carrying the max amount of passengers per journey or flying higher routes to achieve more fuel efficiency).

Yes, I agree, flying less is a good message too--but that's not a message an airline would promote for fear of cutting into their revenue.

I also appreciate your point on transparency, YuYou! Snaps!

Photo of Joanna Spoth

Love the thoroughness of your post, Jaime. I especially like that "Airlines could reward individuals who forgo a plastic cup by bringing their own reusable water containers with airline miles or points." People go crazy for miles and points! I think gamifying green is a powerful way to go about the transition to renewables. I'd love to dive into how we could rethink travel from a renewable energy standpoint. Flying is one of the easiest way to make a carbon footprint gigantic. Will flying ever be able to us renewable energy?

Photo of Jaime Gusching

Hi Joanna,

I appreciate your response and I 100% agree about gamifying green. Giving airline passengers a score, gives them a baseline, allows them to measure improvements, and cajoles them into action.

One of the most challenging obstacles to living more sustainably is overcoming the feeling that my singular contribution doesn't move the needle. Or conversely, that my carbon footprint, enlarged by frequent air travel, doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things.

If I knew my trip from New York to San Francisco will emit 1 metric ton of CO2 and that one tree will sequester 7.5 metric tons, then I had a simple way to make a donation to a Nature Conservancy’s Carbon Offset Program to purchase that tree during my flight, I'd do it.

As for flying on renewable energy, I'm with you! I am doing the research now.

Photo of Selina McPherson

Hi Jaime! I love your thoughts and idea. I travel quite a bit for work and am constantly hyper aware of the amount of resources used on each and every flight (talking primarily about in-flight services) not to mention the immense amount of energy and fuel used as well. It is time for a change!

As Joanna mentioned too, I would love to see how not only resource conservation and reduction are incorporated into your idea, but also renewables. I think you have an incredible opportunity to build this idea into something big! Perhaps you could map out a zero-impact flight! What would that look like? What kind of plane would be used? What would the in-flight experience be like and how would renewable energy innovations play a role? How could communities play a role in the transformation of this industry?

Just doing some quick research, I found these recent articles that could be an interesting thought starter for you:

Solar powered plane for long-distant flights:

Some basics on alternative energy sources for aviation industry:

I think you have identified an industry that is in need of some immense shifts and the sky's the limit!


Photo of Natalie Lake

Hi Jaime,

Another thing to look at would be the preexisting carbon offsetting tax that people are allowed to pay on airlines like delta.

just thought you might find this interesting!

Photo of Jaime Gusching

Thanks, Natalie! I like what Delta's doing, but I'm sure you had to do a bit of digging to find the page. If the information was more salient, more front in center, then maybe behavior would change. Also, creating a monetary incentive to do the right thing would help as well.

Photo of Natalie Lake

I slightly posted this on the other comment, but I definitely agree that campaigns like this to be more visible. I consider myself to be an environmentalist and I had no idea about this carbon offsetting tax! It would be nice to see some sort of campaign centered around this. Perhaps if they were to start this mini green movement, they would find their audience and market this voluntary tax to them? Also, I think your points plan would be a great idea to get people more into this movement.

Photo of Melissa Everett

This is great, but complex. I think it will be strengthened as you analyze not only opportunities but potential barriers/ challenges including logistics (or perceived logistics). I saw some recycling action on US Airways about 5 years ago and then it disappeared and flight attendants said it "didn't work" (and I was deplaning so did not ask the followup question).... Isn't Richard Branson part of some big initiative for the carbon footprint of the aviation industry? Mainly about fuels and external pollution I think, but .... before writing more I jumped over to know what I am talking about, and here is a link to Richard Branson's top ten sustainability initiatives - of which #10 is the work of his own airline and its sustainability manager who apparently has reduced waste 30% overall (including food waste) as well as implementing safer cleaning products. So maybe the strategy is not flight by flight personal initiatives but more of a market based campaign to encourage folks to fly Virgin and/or to bring specific requests to other airlines to implement more systemic steps along the lines you have described, but a coordinated campaign that identifies a spectrum of actions and provides airline customers with checklists, sample letters & other campaign tools...

Here's the Branson info:

Finally, many companies now have sustainability managers and there is actually a professional society that many of them belong to, the International Society of Sustainability Professionals ( - I think they are approachable (in fact the ED is a friend of mine so I know they are approachable). Someone with the time and bandwidth to really run with this particular challenge (which isn't me right now) could identify the right managers in a range of airlines and do some interviews to find out who is doing what.... there are rating systems that could be invoked (see which does sector by sector reviews of the practices of some industries like insurance and utilities.... one way or another I'd recommend getting a more insider, systematic view of what the airline industry has done and the strategies that have accomplished it, recognizing that this is an important but not new idea and viewing it as a serious, multi-year campaign.

Photo of Jaime Gusching

Hi Melissa,

Thank you for your thoughts and for the helpful links! I know it's a big, hairy, audacious goal to tackle the airline industry.

I really like your idea of taking an sector-wide census and benchmarking airlines against each other. I also agree that previous efforts offer valuable insights in moving this project forward.

I believe the key is to get airlines to view it as a cost-savings competitive advantage and then pass those cost savings down to the customers.

Despite good intentions, more often than not, price is the determining factor when choosing an airline.

If Virgin's 30% waste reduction subsequently cut their ticket prices compared to their competitors, it would be an easy choice to fly Virgin.

In approaching airline managers and persuading them to go green, the reality is that doing the right thing would also have to positively impact their bottom line.

Photo of Carles Guerrero Santiago

I agree that price is a too big barrier for purchasers so trying to make this effort cost-effective for airlines and then pass it to the final price would be very successful.

Photo of Spencer Lawrence

I think the reusable cups/containers is a great idea, especially since people already accept the idea (grocery bags, water bottles, etc.). I also like the concept of hybrid planes, even though fully-electric aircraft are probably a long way away.

As far as the in-flight presentation, good luck. From my flying experience, most people don't even pay attention to the safety video.

Photo of Jaime Gusching

Hi Spencer! I agree that the in-flight presentation typically makes eyes glaze over but that's because we've all heard the information before. If something is novel, folks will pay attention. It could be as easy as having facts stream across the TV during boarding or an engaging short video presentation.