Are Frequent Fliers to Blame for Extreme Weather Delays? Should Fear of Climate Change Make Us Stop Flying?

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Are Frequent Fliers to Blame for Extreme Weather Delays? Should Fear of Climate Change Make Us Stop Flying? Are Frequent Fliers to Blame for Extreme Weather Delays? Should Fear of Climate Change Make Us Stop Flying?
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Are Frequent Fliers to Blame for Extreme Weather Delays? Should Fear of Climate Change Make Us Stop Flying?

by Alissa Walker

January 9, 2011

The truth of the situation didn't occur to me until the second time I tried to depart from Newark Airport in three days. My original flight, like thousands of others, had been canceled courtesy of the Boxing Day Blizzard up and down the East Coast, which poured more than two feet of snow, unleashed 60 mile-per-hour winds, and brought perpetually resilient New York City to a grinding halt. Thousands of flights were canceled and tens of thousands of passengers were stranded in a debacle that's estimated to cost the airlines more than $150 million. As I tried desperately to board a flight—any flight—that would take me to Denver, my fellow passengers screamed at gate agents, barked into their cell phones at hold messages, and called Continental unpublishable names on Twitter. But I didn't blame the airlines. I blamed myself.

I've spent the past year like I spend most years: Jetting off to any and all corners of the planet for conferences, events, and speaking invitations. I've never considered not going for environmental reasons—in fact, most of them are sustainability-related, so it's better that I'm there, right?—and I've never, ever, considered the thought of not flying to get there.

By 2050, it's estimated that air travel will be the largest contributor to global climate change. Because the emissions are deposited higher in the atmosphere, they exacerbate the warming effect over other pollutants, according to a study by the United Nations. We now fly more than we ever have as a society—this holiday season actually saw a 3 percent increase in travelers over last year (43.6 million people flew over the Christmas and New Year's holidays) in what the airlines see as a trend toward more people taking to the skies. (Although other studies claim that due to "peak travel" we've actually exhausted our ability to go where we want, when we want.)

Meanwhile, 2010 was an exceptionally crazy year for the planet—check out our slideshow on extreme weather and climate events. But last week alone was enough to give any meteorologist a migraine. If the storm on the East Coast didn't affect your travel, maybe you experienced the tornadoes in the Midwest that killed seven people, flooding in California, and yet another line of blizzards sliding down from the northwest that caused a 100-car pileup. Maybe you were one of the folks who woke up to an extremely rare white Christmas in the south. Or perhaps you were one of the hundreds of thousands displaced by Heathrow Airport's unpreparedness for snow in London, where officials are now making permanent preparations for what they're calling a "step change" in England's traditionally-mild weather.



As I sat at the gate, finally on my way out of Newark, I stared out the window. The air was swirling with deicing fluid that made the tarmac blur into a dreamy mist and permeated the cabin with that familiar acrid smell. I felt the engines start to shudder beneath me, spewing super-heated jet fuel into a cushion of exhaust below. I looked up into the blue sky crisscrossed with puffy contrails and that's when saw them: My frequent flier miles, evaporating into the atmosphere, soon to fall back to Earth as the latest weirded-up, whacked-out weather system. I realized right then and there that I simply couldn't fly like this anymore.

My behavior up until now, brought on by this perfect storm of globalization and too-cheap, too-easy airfares, has a name: "binge-flying." So far, only England has taken steps to curb it by monitoring those throwaway fares and stopping airport expansion, and suggesting that airfares be increased to discourage additional flights. But what are we doing to be responsible travelers? On the ground, we may take public transit to the airport. Maybe a Prius cab. We might even buy some kind of overpriced carbon offset to make us feel better about our behavior. But no one ever gives up flying.

What if, as a frequent flier, I was penalized, not rewarded, for my jetsetting? I would get one blissful vacation per year at a standard fare rate, but anything above and beyond that, I would have to pay extra—maybe double, for fees that would perhaps be poured into high speed rail projects. Would it force me to choose only the events that are the most important for me to attend? Would it make businesses and conferences reconsider their practices for meetings and sharing information? Would something like this even deter people from air travel, or would we simply pay more for the privilege? 

I'm safe at home now, back in L.A. As I look at my neighborhood, littered with downed trees from severe high winds and evaporated hillsides that slid into the streets, I know that my travel habits have been forever changed. But I wonder about my fellow passengers and how the inconvenience impacted them. I heard so many people swearing they'll "never fly ______ airlines again" after their bad travel experiences. I keep thinking that maybe the extreme weather will make us think twice when clicking toward that next extreme low fare we spot on Orbitz. Or is it only a matter of time before our weather delays consistently rock our itineraries into such disarray that people will swear off all flying for good?

Top image by NASA; middle image by AccuWeather.com

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