Emissions from Commercial Planes Prompt Concerns About Regulating Greenhouse Gases

In the Asia Pacific region, leading carriers appear to be staking out positions somewhere between those of the European Union and the United States.


Tim Smith, a spokesman for American Airlines, which carries the most passengers in the world, said American is letting the Air Transport Association lead the response to global warming.

The world's leading aviation organizations, though, disagree on what to do.

The International Air Transport Association, whose member-airlines carry 95 percent of the planet's air passenger traffic, says it can live with emissions trading. Emissions caps and trading, the organization said, is preferable to additional taxes or restraints on growth -- which the association believes hurt airline bottom-lines more grievously.

"Aviation is about the most expensive place to make cuts in CO2 emissions -- we have no substitute fuels, and high fuel prices have already generated most of the achievable efficiencies,'' Brian Pearce, the association's chief economist, said in Geneva in December.

Nevertheless, the EU plan could work, Pearce said -- provided airlines that exceed their carbon caps are permitted to buy credits from companies in other industries -- especially energy companies and heavy manufacturers, which could have an easier time staying below their own caps and thus have credits to sell.

Emissions trading in general -- and the EU plan in particular -- draws no support from the Air Transport Association, which represents most major airlines in the United States -- including U.S. carriers that also belong to the global group.

"ATA is disappointed that the (EU) remains intent on unilaterally covering the flights of non-European Union carriers in its emissions trading scheme,'' the U.S. association said in a statement. "This misguided decision clearly violates international laws and bilateral air service agreements.''

The EU should back off and allow a global agreement to be crafted -- preferably by the United Nations-affiliated International Civil Aviation Organization, the U.S. association maintained.

The Bush administration has also cast a cold eye on the EU proposal, hinting that it might take legal action when the European plan goes into effect. John Byerly, deputy assistant secretary of state for transportation affairs, called it "unworkable and unlawful'' in remarks last month.

In the absence of formal international agreement, some airlines are charting their own flight plans when it comes to global warming.

British Airways, Europe's third-largest carrier, supports the EU emissions trading plan, said Robin Hayes, executive vice president for the Americas. "Global warming is a real fact in our industry,'' he said. "We can't stick our heads in the sand.''

The airline has improved its fuel efficiency by 27 percent since 1990, according to Hayes, and has usually managed to operate in the black. "This proves that economic and environmental factors can go hand-in-hand,'' he said.

In addition to participating in the carbon-trading scheme and backing the EU proposal for a larger and more ambitious system, British Airways is seeing that the new Terminal 5 at London's Heathrow Airport -- the airline's hub --

is as green as possible when it opens next year. "We are looking at ways to reduce environmental impact, using wastewater and recycling,'' he said.

The airline is also weighing the purchase of new, low-emissions, fuel-efficient aircraft, in keeping with the intense dialogue in Europe over global warming, Hayes said.

"I think Europe is a bit ahead,'' Hayes said. "You would be absolutely staggered about how often this is mentioned. There are headlines almost every day.''

Working the middle

In the Asia Pacific region -- which, along with the Middle East, has the world's fastest-growing civil aviation market -- leading carriers appear to be staking out positions somewhere between those of the European Union and the United States.

Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways is investing in environmentally friendly technology and "focusing on fuel efficiency as a key internal way to tackle climate change,'' said spokesman Hugo Lai at the airline's regional headquarters in San Francisco.

As for emissions trading, Cathay Pacific -- which flies to Europe from Asia and would be affected by the EU plan -- is interested in theory but also cautious.

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