The Skyservice Airlines Boeing 757 that regularly wings its way between Pearson Airport and the Caribbean may be 17 years old and a little rough around the rivets, but it’s a poster plane of sorts for how the airline industry is trying to clean up its act.

Last fall, the aircraft was grounded two weeks for a $1-million tip lift that gave its tired old wings a jaunty, upward bend. But the move was far more than middle-aged cosmetics.

Its new “blended winglets” have proven so successful at reducing drag, the 757 has burned 360,000 litres less jet fuel since it went back to the air last Oct. 31. That’s resulted in a 900-tonne, or more than 6 per cent, reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, says Skyservice president Rob Giguere.

And the savings to Skyservice? About $50,000 a month on its jet fuel bill, which is why the airline is now planning to add winglets to the nine remaining 757s in its 20-plane fleet.

“We try to tell passengers what the winglets are all about, but it’s tough to explain,” says Giguere. “Let’s just say that if you parked your car for the rest of your life, you wouldn’t save that much.”

More than a year ago, Skyservice added a state-of-the-art flight-planning system that helps pilots plot their routes along the path of least wind resistance, which has also cut fuel burn. As much as possible, Skyservice’s planes taxi onto and off runways on one engine, rather than two.

And like at far bigger airlines around the world, everything is up for consideration — from adding lighter-weight chairs and galleys to buying newer, more fuel-efficient aircraft.

Skyservice, which flies Sunquest, Signature and Conquest passengers to the Caribbean and Europe, has been talking with those partners about carbon-offset programs to mitigate its greenhouse gases, such as the one Air Canada introduced through non-profit Zerofootprint last May. But Giguere — like many passengers — isn’t sold.

“Carbon credits are a way of making you feel better. You’re essentially saying, ‘We’ll put some money toward something, like planting trees, that makes up for some of the damage we’re doing.’ But you’re better off just doing less damage.”

All the airlines’ efforts, unfortunately, are just a drop in the bucket.

According to some environmentalists, they’re being driven more by making money than saving the planet, and only because oil — which accounts for a third of airlines’ costs — has skyrocketed past $100 a barrel.

“Aviation’s come very late to the climate-change debate,” says London-based environmental activist Tim Johnson, director of the Aviation Environment Federation, one of many U.K. groups pressing for emission caps and strict reduction targets.

He concedes flight has become so integral to peoples’ lives now that growth may be almost impossible to halt. The key, he says, may be forcing airlines to buy carbon credits from other sectors that achieve significant reductions.

The world’s airlines — which carried some 2.2 billion passengers last year — claim they account for just 2 per cent of all man-made carbon emissions. But environmentalists argue the impact is much greater because the carbon dioxide, as well as nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides and heated water vapour, is emitted at higher altitudes where it’s more damaging.

The aviation industry has spent decades creating lighter planes and more efficient engines, but public perception remains it’s done almost nothing, says David Longridge, a sales director for the Seattle-based Boeing aircraft company.

“You show me another industry that has reduced its noise footprint by 90 per cent and its carbon footprint by 70 per cent,” over the past 40 years, says Longridge. “We do acknowledge that there’s an impact that aviation makes ... (but) we will never, ever stop trying to find ways to make planes burn less fuel.”

Hopes are being pinned on advances such as Boeing’s largely carbon-fibre 787 Dreamliner and new generation engines from General Electric due to go into service next year and cut emissions by 20 per cent. Airlines such as Virgin Atlantic are testing biofuels, which are controversial for safety reasons.

While airlines like Air Canada, WestJet and Skyservice continue to pray for environmental salvation from aeronautics engineers, engine manufacturers and their own suggestion boxes, the bottom line is the growth in demand for air travel is expected to far outstrip those gains.

The Airports Council International predicts air travel will double and cargo will triple by 2025.

Most Popular From ...