Flight of Fancy: EPA Moves to Regulate Airlines’ Emissions

Just when U.S. airlines are experiencing an active summer travel season, with four percent more passengers expected than last summer’s banner year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) weighs in on the industry. Their recent verdict: “planet-warming pollution produced by airplanes endangers human health by contributing to climate change.” Such is the basis for their “endangerment finding” under the Clean Air Act, which now triggers the legal requirement to impose the first-ever government regulations of aircraft emissions and extend the EPA’s reach into yet another segment of the U.S. economy.

The announced plan to reduce aircraft emissions takes place as President Obama seeks to bolster his climate change legacy with new policies in the last months of his administration. Airline regulation would be among the final pieces of his contentious and sweeping second-term climate agenda, which included his role in last year’s Paris agreement to commit some 200 countries to act to reduce carbon emissions.

The EPA takes its lead to restrict and regulate in the name of climate change from those broad administration themes. President Obama declaring the debate settled, “climate change is a fact” -- with that statement’s embedded presumptions of human-caused global warming and necessary exigent actions to avert catastrophic climate disruption -- has already provided the EPA with justification for carte blanche regulatory action in several key sectors of the U.S. economy such as power plants and autos.

Similarly, any coming regulation of airline emissions will then adhere to the ddministration’s Climate Action Plan to reduce carbon pollution and be justified with climate change rationale, but – importantly -- imposed without regard for the collective impact of the industry’s operational realities and overall sizable contribution to the nation’s economy.

Airlines have long expected such regulatory treatment. “The airline industry is not dragging its feet,” said one industry spokesperson, and to fly more efficiently and reduce emissions, the industry is “already at the edge of feasibility,” said another. Exhaust emissions are but one of many concerns. A modern airliner must also be able to operate safely, make less noise, withstand tremendous weather and aerodynamic forces, have sufficient size to carry many passengers over long distances at high speeds, and dependably fly often with reasonable operating costs -- among other factors. Within those parameters, domestic airlines will carry over 700 million passengers annually, generate revenues near $160 billion, employ nearly 545,000 people, and account for approximately eight percent of annual U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Airlines already understand it is in their own best interests to limit and reduce exhaust emissions irrespective of any government intervention. Quite simply, fuel is expensive to carry and burn. Fuel vies with labor as an airline’s biggest expense and companies work hard to find ways to reduce consumption and improve overall fuel efficiency. Nowadays, airlines are more intent than ever to improve fuel efficiency just to reduce costs imposed by fuel prices that have risen over time.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), new aircraft are 70% more fuel efficient than 40 years ago and 20% better than 10 years ago. Internationally, airlines have adopted a voluntary fuel efficiency goal to reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by at least 25% by 2020 compared to 2005 levels, while the U.S. airline industry has set a target of an average annual improvement in fuel efficiency of 1.5 percent (and has so far been successful in meeting that goal.)

The world’s two largest aircraft makers -- Boeing and Airbus -- recently put into service more fuel-efficient planes -- the B787 and A380 -- designed for long-distance international routes that seek fuel efficiencies rivaling a compact car for moving each passenger a comparable distance. Engine manufacturers, in turn, fairly recently solved reliability issues so airliners can now safely fly long oceanic routes with two engines versus the previous standard of three or four. Fuel efficient high bypass “turbofan” engines are now the norm, replacing earlier less efficient “turbojet” engines.

Airlines are also working in other areas to improve fuel efficiency and halt emissions growth. Among them are developing alternative fuels; refining both airport ground and flight operations; better managing air traffic; and grounding and retiring older, less fuel efficient aircraft. Pilots are also trained and directed to fly flight profiles that maximize fuel efficiency. Fuel loads for each route are precisely calculated because of costs to carry unneeded fuel, while airlines carefully monitor excess seat capacity so as to load more people on fewer flights.

Why then should the EPA, with its regulatory mindset locked on climate change and egged on by hard-core environmentalists, potentially impose costly and crippling regulations without objective consideration of airlines’ operational realities and efforts?  That question is even more compelling for an industry that has proven capable of acting responsibly without unwarranted government intervention and holds ample monetary incentives to cut fuel consumption -- and thus emissions -- on its own.

Government regulation of any industry, like what the EPA has in mind for the airlines, should not -- pun intended -- “fly” in Washington.

Colonel Krisinger flew C-130 ‘Hercules’ transport aircraft during his Air Force career.  He has family members employed in the airline industry.  E-mail: krisinger1@cox.net .