Continental Takes a Higher Profile on Its Efforts to Cut Greenhouse Gases

Apr. 22 -- Continental Airlines has joined a list of big companies showing a keen interest in controlling carbon dioxide emissions.

While the Houston-based airline has long talked about its efforts to burn less jet fuel -- which has the effect of reducing carbon dioxide emissions per flight -- it primarily was promoted as a way to deal with fuel price surges that caused staggering losses for the industry.

Now with Congress expected to make a serious push for regulations reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, Continental is among the businesses talking publicly about what it is doing to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

"Global climate change is an important issue, and we recognize the importance of directly addressing it," Continental spokesman Dave Messing said in a statement.

Last week, Delta Air Lines announced it was joining with the Conservation Fund to give customers the ability to pay for projects to offset carbon emissions associated with their air travel.

With that announcement, which will involve the planting of trees to help absorb carbon dioxide and restoring wildlife habitat, Delta becomes the first U.S. airline to launch an offset program, although some airlines in Europe, such as British Airways, already do.

Continental is considering a similar program, Messing said.

Aviation expert Mike Boyd said he thought high-profile announcements by airlines are akin to building a firebreak to show the industry is taking some action.

The Air Transport Association said U.S. commercial aviation contributes less than 2 percent of domestic greenhouse gas emissions. The European Union pegs it as 3 percent of emissions, but it's growing as more flights are added, according to the BBC.

Historically, airlines haven't done a lot to try to reduce emissions, said Daniel Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming program.

"And on a per-passenger-miles basis, airlines are the most polluting way to travel," Becker said.

A call for federal standards

Businesses may have reached a tipping point of sorts.

ConocoPhillips and the U.S. arm of BP have joined a group that has called on the federal government to come up with nationwide standards limiting emissions of so-called greenhouse gases. California has already imposed its carbon limits, and members of the group want to avoid state-by-state regulations that could require them to operate under many sets of the rules.

This coalition of corporations and environmental groups also includes General Electric, DuPont, Alcoa and Caterpillar.

Continental hasn't taken a position on mandatory federal standards, Messing said.

And lawmakers in the Democratically controlled U.S. House and Senate are talking about how best to limit carbon emissions.

The European Union has proposed rules on jetliner carbon emissions, which is expected to take effect in 2011. With rapid international growth a priority, what happens there also is a concern for Continental and other U.S. carriers.

The Air Transport Association said that while the airline industry takes its role in controlling greenhouse gas emissions seriously, it opposes the European Commission's proposal to include aviation in its program to control carbon emissions.

Jets that go easy on fuel

Continental pointed out it is almost 35 percent more fuel efficient than it was just a decade ago. An aggressive program to buy more fuel-efficient jets is the biggest reason it is using less fuel per mile to move passengers on its growing route system.

The savings also reflect a host of smaller projects. Planes are moved on the ground by electric vehicles, new terminals are designed with green goals in mind, and jet engines are washed and planes are cleaned more to ensure more efficient operation.

Continental was recently featured in a story by Fortune as one of 10 companies that have been going beyond what the law requires to operate in an environmentally responsible way.

The carrier has beefed up its staff of full-time environmentalists to 13.

"When I came here 10 years ago, there were three or four of us," said Leah Raney, head of Continental's environmental division. "We have definitely grown. Issues have grown, and our program has grown."

The carrier's environmentalists work regularly with equipment makers to acquire more efficient equipment, Raney said.

Continental also has equipped many of its aircraft with winglets, which can reduce the amount of fuel used on a flight by as much as 5 percent, she said.

In cities like Houston with air pollution issues, carbon dioxide is not the only concern.

At its hub in Houston, Continental said its shift to electric vehicles has helped reduce its nitrogen oxide output from ground equipment by more than 75 percent since 2000.

The push to emit fewer greenhouse gases is likely to be used as a rationale for other changes.

For example, Continental is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to make the air control system in the skies over the Houston region more efficient, which can mean fewer delays.

"There are several new airways, or highways in the sky, projected for deployment in the next few years to help streamline the movement of traffic," said Les Parson, the managing director of the air traffic system for Continental.

Aiming for less time aloft

Putting the new airways in place will mean less time in the air, Parson said, and therefore less fuel burned.

Looking ahead, airlines may look to find more offsets for their carbon dioxide emissions.

Cerulean Jet, a private charter service, announced this month that it is purchasing carbon offsets from Green Mountain Energy.

Green Mountain also would like to sell carbon dioxide offsets to commercial carriers, but no big U.S. carriers are using carbon offsets, said Gillan Taddune, chief environmental officer with Green Mountain.

Green Mountain initially created an online carbon calculator for individuals who use commercial air carriers, Taddune said. That calculator allows passengers to estimate how much fuel was used and carbon emitted on their trip.

Push by British Airways

British Airways launched a carbon offset program in 2005, spokesman John Lampl noted.

"There is more awareness in the U.K. and Europe," Lampl said.

"Still, there is not as significant a take-up on it as we would have hoped for. We are still pushing it, and are going to be doing more and more things re the environment."

But British Airways also is campaigning to get a fair hearing for the airline industry in the ongoing debate on global warming, Willie Walsh, the carrier's chief executive officer, said in a speech last week.

The industry's worldwide contribution to global warming is small compared to some other industries, Walsh said.

Road transport produces six times more greenhouse gas emissions and power generation 16 times more, he said.

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