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Airlines feel pressure to embrace green route

Published January 23, 2008

Michael Miller works with aviation executives on green issues.

Compared to their counterparts across the Atlantic, U.S. airlines and airports have been getting a free ride over their contribution to global warming.

Activists clashed with riot police last summer at London's Heathrow Airport to protest a proposed third runway. Greenpeace members gave out train tickets at airports including Heathrow to promote railroads as a more climate-conscious way to travel than flying.

Governments are getting into the act, too. All planes flying within the European Union will be subject to a carbon-trading program starting in 2011.

Green activists and Uncle Sam haven't targeted the aviation industry here yet. But Michael Miller, a former journalist and airline consultant, insists that day is maybe five years away. And airlines, airports and aircraft manufacturers better start changing their ways now.

"It's happening everywhere but in North America," Miller told a group of local airline marketing executives Tuesday in Tampa. "We need to take a leap. But the reality is the train has already left the station."

Miller, 43, is no wild-eyed radical. He spent two decades in the business, including stints with the industry trade publication Aviation Daily, the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller and then with his own company consulting for airlines and jet manufacturers.

After the death of his mother, Miller switched career gears. He settled in Maitland outside Orlando and started Green Skies, a consulting firm devoted "to push the industry from top to bottom."

Green initiatives by airlines have been mostly symbolic. A few recycle aluminum cans and newspapers collected in the cabin. Some sell customers "offsets," contributions to environmental groups that pledge to plant trees that consume carbon dioxide. A British newspaper compared the scheme to giving money to the SPCA so you can keep kicking your dog.

Carriers drag their feet at tackling the tougher issues. Too many still fly old, kerosene-guzzling planes. Northwest Airlines finally announced Monday that it will start parking DC-9s that average 35 years old.

Most airlines still rely on smoky, diesel ground equipment like tugs and baggage loaders that pollute airports more than the jets that fly in and out, Miller said. An exception: Continental Airlines, which switched to electric-powered vehicles at its big hubs.

Airports need to think more creatively, too. One in Alaska put solar panels on the top deck of a parking garage that produce enough juice to power the whole structure. Orlando's airport shuttles travelers around on a couple of 12-passenger, hydrogen-powered buses. Why can't airports replace gasoline vehicles that circle their grounds with short-range electric cars?

The most significant move - for airlines, airports or any organization - will be when chief executives appoint full-time executives with the clout to carry out environmentally friendly policies, Miller said.

Green Skies wants to make a splash in May with a national conference in Orlando. The idea is to bring together executives throughout aviation to talk about green issues and showcase new products and ideas.

Miller hopes to land as keynote speaker Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic, who last year pledged $3-billion to search for alternative fuels.

That might be the holy grail for airlines. Air travel is responsible for 1.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions produced by humans worldwide and 3.5 percent in the United States, according to the World Resources Institute.

That's not in the same league as, say, power plants. But it's enough to get the attention of groups like the Sierra Club.

Business travelers should consider teleconferences in lieu of flying, Jennifer Hattam said, the organization's lifestyles expert. Vacationers can help out by taking fewer, longer vacations by air or traveling closer to home.

That's hardly the kind of advice that airlines want to hear.

Steve Huettel can be reached at or (813) 226-3384.

[Last modified January 22, 2008, 22:51:51]

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