Two major European airlines are offering their passengers a chance to do something about global warming.
British Airways and most recently Scandinavian Airlines System have established programs that give travelers the opportunity to pay carbon-offset fees to help fund clean technology projects.
Aviation industry observers say it is too soon to know whether such voluntary fees will catch on among airlines or gauge how effective they are in curbing greenhouse gases.
"Europe has been further ahead in terms of being environmentally responsible,'' said Henry Harteveldt, industry analyst in the San Francisco office of Forrester Research. For travelers here and abroad, the tipping point may have been reached, at least in part, due to the impact of Al Gore and his Oscar-winning documentary film, Harteveldt said. "There's no question that 'An Inconvenient Truth' helped,'' he said.
"It's something we will likely see more of,'' Harteveldt said of airline-driven carbon offsets. Even so, he said, "Consumers probably feel it's the company's responsibility to address the environmental impacts of their industry, not theirs.''
Questions have arisen about whether such programs are the most effective way to fight climate change and whether they will be in place very long before being superseded by government-mandated carbon-trading programs for the airlines themselves. The European Union, for example, plans to require airlines serving Europe to use carbon trading by 2011; the United States has no such plans.
British Airways used its Web site, , to create an emissions offset program 18 months ago, the first major airline to do so. It was followed last month by Scandinavian Airlines System, which uses its Web site, , for its program.
Although differences exist, both programs give travelers a way to calculate the amount of carbon dioxide generated per person by their trip, assign a monetary value to it and make a voluntary payment through the airline's Web site to a third-party company that funnels the money to green projects. Neither airline handles carbon-fee money, and the fees are not part of the airlines' fares.
British Airways has promoted its program with its frequent fliers and through media coverage in the United Kingdom. Passenger use so far has been modest, with the "calculate your CO2 emissions'' feature of the environment section of the airline's Web site receiving 2,000 hits a month. About 7 or 8 percent of Web visitors pay the fees, according to Robin Hayes, the airline's executive vice president of the Americas.
Indeed, none of four randomly chosen fliers lining up at San Francisco International Airport for a British Airways flight to London on a recent afternoon was aware of the program. Once the program was outlined and they heard how much their fee would be (about $30 for a London-San Francisco round trip), two travelers said they might use it in the future.
"That's pretty reasonable,'' said Claire Wong of San Francisco, who was heading to Britain for a spring vacation. "I might do it if I fly them again. It's a step in the right direction. At least you're doing something.''
Hayes said British Airways, which flies twice daily between SFO and London's Heathrow airport, put its program into effect because, "We were getting more inquiries from our customers about what they could do to offset climate change, and no one denies aviation plays a role in climate change.''
So British Airways hooked up with British company Climate Care, which works with a variety of businesses to funnel money to projects that include renewable power for schools in India and restoring rain forests in Uganda. Climate Care, according to the company's Web site, care.org, is 9 years old.
"A number of different groups are involved in fighting climate change,'' Hayes said. "Climate Care has a history of developing and selling offsets. We liked the transparency with which this is done.
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