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

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 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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