How Safe Is Air Travel for the Environment and Your Health?

Jesse Johnson – Contributing Writer

Posted on Thursday 8th November 2018


With the holiday season rapidly approaching, many of us are making travel plans in order to spend time with our loved ones. While some might choose to travel by car, bus, or train, many will opt to book a quick flight through one of many available airlines. It’s easy to take this for granted. Once considered an impossibility, it’s now a casual experience to board massive airplanes and travel hundreds or even thousands of miles in just a few hours.

Aside from seasonal travels, airplanes help us to explore new countries and cultures, seek specialized medical treatments, conduct business trips, and visit family and friends anytime of the year. Traveling by air not only provides us with greater access to the world, but it also speeds up most trips significantly. A distance that might take days to travel using a train, bus, or personal vehicle might only take hours on a plane. It’s also convenient to avoid having to navigate complicated highway systems, and when considering the costs involved with fueling your car and stopping for lodging during longer trips, air travel is often a cost-effective alternative as well.

Considering all these perks, it’s no wonder so many people are happy to rely on airplanes for their travel needs. Like a lot of services we appreciate, it’s easy enough to plan and purchase a flight package online without much of a thought to the hidden impacts. But how does air travel stack up against other forms of travel when considering its effects on our environment as well as your personal health?

Let’s explore a few factors that can help you determine when air travel is the right choice.


Fuel Efficiency

Any combustion engine will produce some amount of greenhouse gases which contribute to air pollution and climate change. Obviously, not all engines are created equal, and our choices about whether to drive, ride, or fly could have a major impact on the environment over time. However, it’s not as simple as you might think to calculate fuel efficiency between different means of transportation.

Without a doubt, it requires a lot of fuel to achieve liftoff in an airplane that weighs several hundred tons. While it takes less fuel overall to propel your car from place to place, you have to consider how many people are typically traveling in your car. During long-distance trips as well as your daily life, you may be burning a lot of fuel to transport one or two people, whereas a plane might transport hundreds of passengers at once.

In the same way, buses are larger and require more fuel to move from one end of town to the other. Yet a busload of people will consume much less fuel than if each individual drove the same distance in their own vehicle.

To consider one example, note that a Boeing 747 passenger airplane is reported to burn five gallons of fuel per mile. A 4000 mile flight would require 20,000 gallons of fuel. While that seems like a lot, when you divide it among 400 passengers, each person aboard would be responsible for using 50 gallons of fuel during the trip.

Making that same trip in a car that gets 30 miles per gallon would require 133 gallons of fuel. Obviously, this requires much less fuel overall. However, the car may only be carrying two passengers, which brings the individual fuel costs to 66.5 gallons per person. In this case, carrying fewer passengers over this distance in a car would use more fuel per person.

Again, deciding which travel method burns less fuel isn’t always this simple. The scenario above is more of an ideal situation. If a flight isn’t fully booked, it can cut down on the fuel efficiency per person. It’s also important to note that shorter and more frequent flights will burn larger amounts of fuel during takeoff more often than flights covering longer distances.

In the end, deciding which travel method is the most efficient typically depends on three factors:

  • How much fuel is needed to propel the vehicle?

  • How many people can the vehicle carry?

  • How far is the vehicle traveling?

By these standards, choosing to fly when making a long-distance trip will often be more fuel efficient, thus more environmentally friendly. For shorter distances and daily travel, a car might be a better decision to save fuel and money. And it’s worth noting that, while it’s not always convenient to give up the independence of a personal vehicle in favor of a public transportation system, buses stand to offer the most fuel efficient options for daily commutes due to their large capacity.


Health Risks

Many people experience extreme fear and anxiety about air travel, whether flying across short or long distances. In many cases this might be rooted in one or more unpleasant memories from past flights, such as mechanical malfunctions or strong turbulence during a flight.

Flying thousands of feet above the ground at over 500 miles per hour is enough to make anyone feel vulnerable to a lot of factors that are beyond your control. Many people dislike or outright avoid flying because of the massive amounts of attention accidents involving airplanes receive in the news and popular culture.

While there’s no doubt that airplane crashes are catastrophic and devastating events, it may surprise you to learn that statistically, planes are safer than driving in a car. According to some reports, when considering the number of accidents among passengers as well as miles traveled, your odds of dying in a car crash are around 1 in 114, while your odds of dying in an air travel accident are around 1 in 9,821.

That’s a huge difference. Admittedly, it’s not easy to put your faith in numbers like this right away. And while it’s not a good idea to obsess over the likelihood of a car accident, these statistics might offer you some peace of mind the next time you board a plane. It’s also worth considering that, unlike some domestic drivers, pilots and other air travel staff are professionally trained to keep you safe, and the equipment goes through highly detailed inspections on a regular basis.

One surprising risk you might face while traveling by plane involves the air quality during your flight. Some experts have pointed out issues with the way passenger planes circulate air within the cabin. During this process, a portion of the air is cycled through the jet engine’s compressors, known as “bleed air.”

At high altitudes, the air is too thin for us to breathe properly, and this bleed air helps to pressurize and condition the air in the cabin. However, bleed air can also contain a variety of chemicals that can be toxic to humans. Although these systems include seals designed to separate air from lubricants and other chemicals, this method is not 100 percent effective and as these seals degrade, passengers may be exposed to higher amounts of fumes.

This subject has gone mostly unnoticed and it may require more research and advocacy before plane manufacturers will invest in cleaner air circulation systems. However, it’s something to consider when making your travel decisions. If you find yourself experiencing blurred vision, memory loss, balance issues, shaking, and heart palpitations during or recently after a flight, you may be experiencing aerotoxic syndrome due to exposure to bleed air.

Additionally, some groups should always plan to consult a doctor before flying. For example, pregnant women and infants may face specific risks and restrictions when flying. When considering whether to bring an infant on a flight, your doctor might discourage the flight based on the baby’s age since their immune systems are still developing. Unfortunately, air travel can increase your baby’s exposure to to infectious diseases. The changing air pressure within the cabin can also lead to issues like ear pain, trouble breathing, and heart problems.

For pregnant women, aside from ensuring that the airline has policies that will allow you to fly at the point you’ve scheduled your trip, you should aim to travel by plane only during the second trimester. By this point, you may have moved past the uncomfortable nausea of the first trimester. This will also help avoid risks of miscarriage, premature labor, or circulatory complications such as deep vein thrombosis while traveling.

Anyone suffering from conditions like allergies, asthma, diabetes, or heart problems should also consult a doctor before flying. In many cases, it will be safe for you to fly. However, you may need to take extra precautions such as bringing plenty of your medications and ensuring you’ve taken the proper pathway to check these through security. For example, you may need to present a letter from your doctor in order to bring an EpiPen or larger amounts of liquid medications on a flight. Warning airlines about serious medical conditions in advance can also help them to provide additional accommodations to keep you safe and healthy.


The invention of flight has evolved into one of the greatest conveniences we will experience as a society. Ensuring your flight is as safe for your health and the environment can be as simple as doing a little research beforehand. When weighing the many travel options available and their environmental impacts, air travel can actually beat out land-based travel in some circumstances. As a general rule, if you’re planning to travel long distances, consider booking a flight that will carry many people. Although estimating the amount of fuel you might be responsible for burning in each trip can seem like a hassle, this can help you to minimize the environmental impacts of your travel.

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