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More Fuel-Efficient Jets Could Lead to Passenger Nirvana

New, fuel-efficient jets could have another payoff for passengers: more legroom. JAVIER LIZON / EPA

Want more legroom, more direct flights, and less time stuck in holding patterns? It could be coming to airline passengers, but at a price: higher fares.

Regulators are moving along with targets intended to push commercial airlines to slash their emissions of carbon dioxide not by stuffing more of us onto the existing fleet, but by targeting the underlying issue of aircraft fuel efficiency. That will mean new, fuel-efficient airplanes, an upgrade that could come with creature comforts such as more legroom and state-of-the-art inflight entertainment.

But integrating new airplanes into existing fleets and upgrading technology will cost money, which may lead to higher fares, noted Vera Pardee, a San Francisco-based attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of several environmental groups that are pushing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate airline greenhouse gas emissions.

"I don’t want to oversell it … I do believe that cost will be associated," she said. "But you also have to look at the other side of the ledger, which is we are avoiding enormous environmental costs."

U.S. airlines currently account for between 2 and 3 percent of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions and "are one of the fastest-growing carbon pollution sources, on track to triple globally by 2050 under business-as-usual scenarios," according to a letter the environmental groups sent in January to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Growing Demand

Industry titan Boeing forecasts that 36,770 new airplanes will enter the global fleet over the next 20 years. About 42 percent of these new planes will replace those retired from commercial service, primarily in the U.S. The rest will expand fleets in emerging markets within Asia, Latin America, and Africa, according to Boeing's environment spokeswoman Jessica Kowal in Seattle.

"There is a lot of growth in our industry and at the same time there is a lot of attention on aircraft emissions," she said.

A coalition of airlines and industry partners that includes Boeing and Airlines for America known as the Air Transport Action Group has set voluntary targets for improving fuel efficiency of the global fleet by 1.5 percent annually into 2020. By 2050, the coalition aims to cut emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels.

Battle Over Legroom Rages Among Cramped Passengers Everywhere 0:40

"It is not like just trust us," said Nancy Young, vice president of environmental affairs at Airlines for America, an industry trade group in Washington. "We are committed to this, we have put it on the table" at the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency established in 1944 to develop international standards to inform legally-enforceable national civil aviation regulations.

Voluntary targets on increased fuel efficiency and reduced carbon emissions established by members of the international aviation industry could also usher in improved air traffic management systems that expedite travel between airports, said Young.

Crowded Flights

In the U.S., fuel efficiency gains stalled in 2013, according to aviation expert Dan Rutherford at the International Council on Clean Transportation in San Francisco. That's because few new fuel efficient aircraft entered the fleet from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, and airlines maxed out the gains achievable by packing every plane to capacity.

"The more full your plane is, the better your fuel efficiency will be. We've seen in our work that those load factor gains are tailing off," he said. "We are now at the point where your average flight in the U.S. is about 83 percent full and many flights that you get on are completely full."

New emissions standards under consideration at the International Civil Aviation Organization, where the EPA is an active participant, "wouldn't really require the airlines to fill their planes more or put more seats on planes," Rutherford added. "They are targeting the underlying efficiency of the aircraft more than the number of seats."

And those types of changes in the long run, he added, could lead to lower fares if the fuel savings the airlines gain from flying more fuel-efficient planes are passed on to consumers. Of course, he noted, the recent decline in fuel prices has yet to be reflected in today's aircraft fares, throwing into doubt hopes for a direct correlation between fuel costs and ticket prices.

An additional hazard associated with falling fuel prices, he added, is the reduced incentive for airlines to focus on fuel efficiency unless an underlying legally-binding regulation is in place to "provide a sustained and predictable signal for manufacturers to continue to improve their aircraft independent of the day-to-day fluctuations of fuel price."

Passengers scrunch as airlines rethink cabins 1:27

Policy Notes

Under legal pressure from the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups, the EPA is on track to issue a proposed endangerment finding on aircraft emissions by this April, the next step toward establishing an aircraft emissions standard under the Clean Air Act, according to an emailed statement from the agency. A final endangerment finding would come in 2016.

The International Civil Aviation Organization is expected to come forward with a standard by 2016 as well, a process that has been in the works since 2009. "It is anticipated that that standard would be integrated into U.S. law after it gets agreed at the international level," Young of Airlines for America explained.

The Center for Biological Diversity's Pardee said she hopes this is how events play out, but given "the history of obstructionism and foot dragging" at the international level the environmental groups are pushing the EPA to follow through on its Clean Air Act obligations regardless of what happens internationally.

"If the United States regulates and the international community fails to, that is going to be extremely inconvenient for all concerned because airline manufacturers don't want to manufacture to two different standards; it is just not a good scheme," she noted. "So, the national effort can work as a catalyst to get the international effort off the ground."