An Alaska Airlines jet takes off from Sea-Tac International Airport 
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An Alaska Airlines jet takes off from Sea-Tac International Airport
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

It's the most polluting time of the year. Your airline choice could help

Which airline you choose can help cut back on the damage your air travel does to the climate, according to a new study.

This is the busiest week of the year at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which means it’s also the most polluting time of year at the nation’s ninth-busiest airport.

Getting jet airliners in the air takes a lot of fossil fuel, but some airlines guzzle less than others.

Mile for mile, one airline burns less jet fuel per passenger than any other.

“Alaska in particular has a very fuel-efficient fleet,” said Daniel Rutherford with the International Council on Clean Transportation in San Francisco.

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He said Alaska Airlines has had the best record on fuel economy for the past seven years.

“They use the right aircraft on the right routes, which allows them to burn less fuel.”

Frontier Airlines and Spirit Airlines come close to Alaska Airlines in fuel efficiency, according to ICCT.

The dirtiest airlines include Delta, JetBlue and Virgin America. They burn as much as one-fourth more fuel than Alaska does for every mile they carry a paying passenger.

Alaska might not top the list of fuel efficiency next year: It’s in the middle of a merger with Virgin America, the most polluting of the major carriers. That merger has made Alaska the nation’s fifth-largest airline.

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Overall, the airline industry has gotten 3 percent more fuel-efficient in the past two years, but for a reason their customers might not like to hear.

“It was mostly due to the fact that airlines are putting more seats on their planes,” Rutherford said.

So if you feel like a sardine in a can next time you’re at 30,000 feet, comfort yourself with the thought that you’re doing a little less damage to the climate.

Rutherford said efficiency improvements were swamped by the 10 percent growth in air travel over the past two years. Jet fuel consumption, and the carbon dioxide propelled out the back of jet engines, rose by 7 percent.

“Make no bones about it, fuel is a big part of our business,” Alaska Airlines CEO Brad Tilden said in a company sustainability report. “Our fuel consumption represents 99 percent of our carbon footprint. Reducing the amount of fuel we consume is a major focus.”

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Even so, the Seattle-based airline’s fuel use and carbon pollution have grown 40 percent in less than a decade as the number of Alaska flights has soared.

In its sustainability report, Alaska Airlines highlighted three flights it made in 2016 using a mix of 80 percent jet fuel and 20 percent biofuel. The company said the biofuel has 20-50 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions of regular jet fuel but is not available in large quantities.

On Thursday, the Port of Seattle, which runs Sea-Tac airport, announced its goal to get 10 percent of its jet fuel from locally produced biofuel a decade from now and 50 percent by the year 2050.

As jet fuel prices have fallen in half in the past couple years, flight volumes, airline profits and fuel consumption have all taken off.

The low prices also make investments in fuel efficiency or alternative fuels less attractive economically.

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“We do have this current headwind in that jet fuel is very inexpensive right now,” Rutherford said.

The global aviation industry’s carbon emissions are forecast to triple in the next 30 years unless major policy changes reverse that trend.

John Ryan loves getting tips and documents. He can be reached at jryan@kuow.org or on the encrypted Signal or WhatsApp apps at 1-401-405-1206 (whistleblowers, never do so from a work or government device, account or location). For greatest security, use KUOW's SecureDrop portal. Snail mail is also a safe way to reach him confidentially: KUOW, 4518 University Way NE #310, Seattle, WA 98105. Don't put your return address on the outside.