But now, three and a half years later, Americans’ love for airplanes is back in full force. The Transportation Security Administration recorded 75.5 million passengers passing through U.S. airports last month, more than the 72 million who traveled in October 2019. TSA expects 30 million passengers to travel during the Thanksgiving holiday alone. The International Civil Aviation Organization predicts that worldwide passenger demand in 2023 will exceed passenger demand in 2019 by about 3%.
Experts say social norms around travel, a desire to stay connected to distant family and friends, and the relative convenience of air travel are holding Americans back from flying. And as aviation returns, hopes that flight emissions will permanently decline are fading, at least until technology advances.
It appears that some aspects of flight have not fully returned. Analysts say business travel, for example, has not fully returned to pre-pandemic levels and is unlikely to recover until next year. However, increased travel for vacations and other leisure activities is offsetting the number of meetings conducted via Zoom and other platforms. This is similar to aviation shocks of the past. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the 2008 financial crisis, leisure travel was the first to recover, but business travel took much longer.
Airplanes account for about 2.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but humans account for about 3.5 percent of global warming each year. This is because airplanes affect the chemical composition of the sky. This may seem like a small amount, but as countries develop and more people can afford airline tickets, aviation emissions could triple by 2050. there is.
At last year’s International Civil Aviation Organization meeting, nearly 200 countries pledged to achieve net-zero emissions from their aviation sector by 2050. But as of now, there is no truly “green” way to fly. There are no carbon offsets. The uptake of reliable and sustainable aviation fuels has been slow. The agreement also does not include interim targets for 2030 or 2040, or how much each country must reduce emissions from aircraft.
Some people passionate about climate change and the environment, including some climate scientists, have signed a pledge to reduce or stop flying altogether. (Although aviation accounts for a small portion of global climate emissions, it can be the largest portion of an individual’s carbon footprint.)
But in countries like the United States, there are few easy alternatives. A study by the International Clean Transportation Council found that if countries invested in high-speed rail, 54 percent of domestic flights could be replaced by rail travel. But Amtrak’s current fastest train in the country, the Acela from Boston to Washington, D.C., runs only half as fast as other countries’ high-speed trains. California’s proposed high-speed rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles was approved by state voters in 2008, but no opening date has been set yet.
Dan Rutherford, program director for aviation and maritime programs at the International Clean Transportation Council, said the return to air travel is proceeding essentially as expected, but that’s not good news for those hoping to reduce emissions. . “Achieving net-zero aviation emissions by 2050 is unlikely if people resume flying as they did pre-COVID-19,” he said in his email. “Strong policy intervention will be required.”
Kevin Crowe contributed to this report.