Does flying economy reduce the carbon footprint of your flight?

Let’s say it out loud: the negative impact of air travel on the environment is enormous, no matter the class you take. But if you want to reduce your personal CO₂ emissions per flight, you’d better choose economy class. Here is why.
Written by Team Oncarbon
Carbon management platform for air travel, API-first
June 2, 2022

“Business class is a waste of space and burns an absurd amount of fuel,” wrote Simon Calder of The Independent in the article “Why we should all be flying economy class only.”1 Calder tried to convince readers that one day even corporate executives will fly economy class only, regardless of the length of the flight. “It doesn’t mean enduring miserable journeys. A shrewd employer will let their staff choose civilized flying times and allot extra time for the journey so that the traveler gets some proper sleep in a real bed,” he wrote.

It’s hard to say whether his predictions will come true – right now, most scheduled airlines offer first and business class – and even “sleeping compartments” on long-haul flights. Still, we’d like to argue why we should choose economy class if we really need to fly (and not take a train, for example).

The sleeping suite on some Singapore Airlines’s aircrafts.
The sleeping suite on some Singapore Airlines’s aircrafts.

Why is flying so harmful for the environment?

Let us first define what makes flying so harmful to the environment: it is, of course, the combustion of fossil fuels. For example, a Boeing 747 flying from Heathrow to Edinburgh (530 km) uses about 11,354 kg of fuel, releasing about 36 tons of CO2 (since burning one kilogram of fuel produces 3.157 kg of carbon dioxide).

Those 36 tons would be emitted each time the plane flies this route – the number of passengers on the flight and the occupancy rates of business and economy class seats have some, but limited impact on this fact.

Add to this the emissions associated with the whole life cycle of the jet fuel’s production, including the emissions caused by the process of acquiring fossil fuels, which we define as 0.617 kg of CO2 per kilogram of jet fuel produced. Then we attribute the warming effect to all the seats of a flight itinerary, resulting in a measure of CO2e emissions per seat.

You can read more about our methodology here.

What are the CO2 emissions per seat in business and economy classes?

The conclusion should now be obvious. If you compare the same type of aircraft from the same year, but with a different seat configuration, you get different results in terms of the CO2 footprint per seat. Airlines that pack their planes almost to the brim and do not carry any business or premium class (like Ryanair or easyJet) have a lower carbon footprint per seat than airlines that have business class seats on the same type of plane – simply because there are more seats on that plane.

The “per seat” part is crucial here because, as we stated earlier, the overall emissions of a flight remain roughly the same, regardless of the number of passengers that are actually on board.

Why is the space required by the average traveler bigger in premium class than in economy class? First, the seat itself takes up more space and second, the occupancy rate (the percentage of available seats that are actually occupied) is in most cases lower in premium class than in economy class.

According to World Bank calculations, a business class passenger occupies on average 2.5-3 times2 as much space onboard an aircraft as an economy class passenger does. The ratio of occupied space in first class to that in economy class per traveler is even higher, in some cases 6:1 or even more.

The Guardian calculates3 that the footprint of a first-class passenger on British Airways long-haul flights is about 5.5 times that of an economy-class passenger, while a business seat is 3.5 times the economy option. The World Bank study shows the carbon footprint of first class passengers can be up to 9 times4 that in economy, while other sources state that the first class usually doubles the carbon footprint of the economy class.

Should we all give up business class?

In 2021, Scott Gillespie, a business travel industry consultant at tClara, wrote an article titled “Why we need to fly business class”. He wrote that it’s not the space that matters when calculating carbon footprints, but weight. “If an airline decides to remove three economy seats to make room for another business class seat, the weight of the business class seat and one passenger with luggage is about half the weight of the three economy seats and the three passengers with luggage. This means the flight uses slightly less fuel, not more. So the flight emits slightly less CO2 than if the flight had been configured and sold with three economy seats,”  Gillespie argued in his absurd text.

He added that business class fares are much more expensive than economy fares, so “more business seats would reduce a flight’s emissions in the long run because fewer people would be flying.” And since the general goal should be to reduce overall emissions (not emissions per passenger, or per seat), adding more business-class seats would help achieve that goal.

Gillespie’s argument, however, overlooks two points. The first is that business-class passengers typically carry more luggage than economy-class travelers, and the second is that airlines always intend to fill the plane and sell as many tickets as possible – even if that means lowering prices for both economy and business class seats. More business class seats and higher prices would probably not reduce demand for air travel in the long run.

Gillespie overlooks the fact that demand for air travel has been steadily increasing despite the pandemic and the temporary collapse of the market. Recent estimates suggest that demand for air travel will grow by an average of 4.3% per year over the next 20 years. This means that overall demand will increase – and so will emissions.

The unconvenient truth is that flying causes a lot of emissions and regardless of which class you fly, the plane will emit tons of CO2. But the fact is also that flying economy class means less carbon dioxide per passenger – so if you really need to fly, your personal carbon footprint will be lower if you choose flying economy.

A way out?

Is there a trade-off between comfort and lower flight emissions? Calder, whom we already quoted above, suggests that there is a way out. Instead of flying business class and taking non-stop ultra-long-haul flights, he suggests taking a flight during the day and then resting in a real hotel bed at night. “This is a win-win-win situation,” he writes. “The damage to the environment is reduced, not the least of which is the drastic reduction in the carbon footprint per passenger. The employer saves money. And while the traveler forsakes a lie-flat bed, elaborate meals and buckets of frequent-flyer points, they will actually have a less grueling journey.”

In our opinion, this option is far from perfect, because some business trips require multiple transfers, which means more takeoffs and landings (which in turn mean higher carbon footprints). In this case, flying one long-haul flight in business class could be equal in emissions to taking several shorter flights in economy class.

What’s the solution then? We understand that it is often not possible to tell travelers not to travel or not to fly. However, the key could be trustworthy information about the carbon footprint of a particular flight that is clearly visible when you buy your ticket. If you, as a passenger, could see exactly how much emissions your flight will produce, you would choose your flight more carefully and consciously. And that’s exactly our goal at Oncarbon.

Your decisions do count!

Our carbon footprint calculator, based on cutting-edge math, shows the carbon emissions generated by your flight. Thanks to a solution like ours, you can make an informed decision and know the environmental cost of your trip. There are already airlines, travel agencies and flight booking websites using similar solutions and giving their customers a choice.

If you’d like to learn more about how Oncarbon works, contact us and we will be happy to show you all the features of our product. Only together can we make the world a better place – that’s why we should all work for more transparency in the aviation and travel industry. You can help us make it more sustainable – regardless of which class of flight you will ultimately choose. Or maybe you will take a train next time?

Team Oncarbon
We’re on the mission to show you that we need – and we can – travel more consciously. We bring closer to you the topics of carbon footprint, sustainable travel and aviation, and transparency in emissions reporting.