Airlines, emitting and spinning…

Airlines, emitting and spinning…

Few businesses are as beleaguered as the airline industry. So I can understand why the airlines don’t want their greenhouse gas emissions regulated. They oppose the Lieberman-Warner bill that is pending in Congress, arguing that they are already suffering from dramatically higher fuel prices and that climate-change regulation would further increase their costs. That might lead the airlines to raise ticket prices, impose new surcharges, fly to fewer places, etc.

So it goes.

Every other form of transportation that relies on fossil fuels driven—cars, trucks, trains and ships—will have to pay more to emit carbon dioxide. There’s no good reason to exempt the airlines or cut them a special break.

I say this as a frequent flyer who finds much to admire about the airlines. That puts me in a minority. A new survey finds that passengers are more dissatisfied than ever by the airlines service. And that was before American Airlines decided to start charging people extra for checking luggage, a sign of more turbulence ahead.

So what’s to like? Well, airline travel in the U.S. is incredibly safe. (Southwest and JetBlue have never had a fatal accident.) And although nobody likes airline delays, I feel like I have at least as good a chance of getting where I’m going on time by plane than I do when I ride Amtrak or the Washington D.C. metro or (worst) drive my car onto the Beltway. Flying also remains a good deal—the cost of plane tickets has grown more slowly than the cost of college tuition, prescription drugs, homes, gasoline and movie tickets over the last 30 years, as the industry notes. Finally, I learned last week that airlines are becoming much more efficient. (Unlike, say, cars.) Between 1978 and 2007, commercial airlines improved their fuel efficiency by 110 percent. More recently, according to the Air Transport Association, the airlines reduced greenhouse gas emissions on an absolute basis, moving 12 percent more passengers and 22 percent more cargo in 2006 than they did in 2000 while cutting fuel usage and emissions by 4 percent. That’s what happens when fuel costs rise—companies look for ways to use less.

“We have an extraordinary market-based incentive to be as green as we can be,” says Jim May, the CEO of the Air Transport Association. About 40 percent of an average ticket now goes to fuel costs, May says, so airlines are more driven than ever to conserve.

I met May and several other industry execs at a breakfast at the Hay Adams Hotel organized by the Edelman public relations firm. Edelman exec and DC talking-head Tony Blankley invited reporters and industry officials to a conversation about the environmental and business issues facing the industry. (Disclosure: My daughter Rebecca is a summer intern at Edelman.)

May is worried about the industry, and not just because of the dramatic increase in oil prices. Labor relations at the big legacy carriers are terrible. Many customers are disgruntled. And the economy is slumping. On the day we met, a front-page story in The New York Times reported that dozens of small cities are losing air service (despite federal subsidies).

“This is worse than 9/11,” May said. “It’s a constant pounding.”

May and the ATA don’t want the added burden of complying with climate change rules. They note that while the Lieberman-Warner bill will give away permits to emit CO2 to coal-burning utilities, to cushion the blow of higher electricity prices, there’s no such provision for the airlines. They say commercial aviation produces just 2 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.

No matter. Smart companies are getting out ahead of the climate change issue. They understand that the stakes are so high that every sector will have to do its part. Automakers, utilities, even oil companies Shell and BP have joined the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, an alliance of environmental groups and big companies committed to a cap-and-trade system of regulating greenhouse gases. Remember that next time someone tries to persuade you that GHG regulation will wreck the economy.

To be sure, Lieberman Warner will raise the cost of fossil fuels. That’s what people mean when they say that it will “put a price on carbon.” By coincidence, after meeting with the airline industry people, I went to see an executive named Jennifer Holmgren, who runs the renewable energy business for UOP, a unit of Honeywell. UOP is working to develop biofuels, from algae and other sources, including a replacement for jet fuel. Higher prices for oil will be good for her business. The airline industry, most visibly Richard Branson’s Virgin, is already seeking alternative fuels, as the Wall Street Journal reports.

If the airlines continue to oppose climate-change legislation – particular without offering constructive ideas of their own for cutting emissions – their reputations could suffer. They need only to look across the Atlantic to see the risk. In the UK, former Prime Minister Tony Blair was criticized when he flew to Miami for a Christmas vacation, and Prince Charles was seen as a hypocrite for boarding a jet to Philadelphia to accept an environmental award, according to the Christian Science Monitor. The Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, went so far as to say that “making selfish choices such as flying on holiday or buying a large car are a symptom of sin.”

The last thing the airlines need is for us to think of them as polluters every time we get on a plane.