KLM is on the cusp of next-generation social media innovation but knows that it has to serve the environment just as it cares for its customers. The airline is making great strides with its eco-focused maneuvers; according to the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, Air France-KLM has been the most sustainable airline group in the world for 12 years running. Airlines get a bad rap for the carbon emissions that they release, but they only account for 2-3 percent of the global total. Still, KLM wants to do its part.

What exactly does it take for a global airline to become eco-friendly?

Setting goals and sticking to them

KLM is setting some lofty goals for itself, such as dropping the total amount of carbon emissions it produces by 20 percent by the year 2020 (compared to its 2011 levels). It will do this by retiring fuel-guzzling planes like the Boeing 747-400, Fokker 70, and MD-11 (much to the chagrin of aviation geeks; the MD-11’s retirement flight took high-paying fans on a sightseeing mission around the country). The airline is focused on replacing 5-10 percent of its fleet with newer planes like the Boeing Dreamliner 787-900, which can reach as much as a 40 percent fuel savings on some of its flights.

It is also targeting reductions of between 1 and 5 percent of its fuel consumption that come from operational efficiencies. These include everything from taxiing to the gate on just one engine to flying more direct routes to save fuel.

Thin paint schemes can also be a meaningful contributor to fuel savings, which is why the airline is using chrome-free, easily washable layers of paint. This means the airline uses 15 percent less paint, reducing the fuel drag of the aircraft. The plane can be more easily cleaned using only soap and water, avoiding the use of hazardous solvents.

Of course, KLM recycles plastic, paper, and aluminum to the extent possible. However, the airline has taken things one step beyond other carriers by using recycled material from its old cabin crew uniforms as part of the carpeting aboard its new aircraft cabins. 

Inflight catering uses products (like coffee and chocolates, for example) that are sustainable and fair trade when possible. Inflight meals avoid mass-produced chicken and eggs in favor of local, farm-raised options.

KLM is among the many airlines to offer a carbon offset program, which allows passengers to pay a donation that relates to the amount of carbon emissions travelers are putting into the atmosphere due to their itinerary. This can reach several hundred dollars for some long-haul flights, and most airlines remain mum on the limited uptake of this voluntary donation. However, KLM claims that some do-gooder passengers pay it.

Biofuel to the rescue

The use of biofuel can reduce COemissions by as much as 80 percent compared to fossil kerosene, which is why airlines are keen on exploring its use. KLM was the first airline to fly with biofuel back in 2009, and currently, it operates one of its two daily frequencies between Amsterdam and Los Angeles with an aircraft carrying a blend of biofuel. The estimated CO2 savings is approximately 60 percent and leads to a 5 percent improvement of the carbon footprint per passenger.

KLM has also tested algae-based fuel and one that uses partially recycled cooking oil. Other airlines have tried similar experiments, including Air New Zealand and Japan Airlines, both of which have conducted tests with flower-based Jatropha.

At the moment, it is not yet possible to operate flights using 100 percent biofuel, and biofuels still have to be mixed with conventional fossil kerosene. But things are heading in the right direction.

Some of the surprising things that save fuel

The airline is following the footsteps of other carriers by replacing paper manuals for crew with electronic ones on tablets and substituting hefty newspapers and magazines with a free app with hundreds of periodicals for economy class passengers.

By washing the engines more often, the carrier can clear away debris and create a more fuel-efficient flying experience. And KLM has decided to do away with some of its heavyweight cargo bins that store luggage and other freight on wide-body planes, replacing them with lightweight netting made of a strong material that is just as secure while saving significant fuel.

On board, the airline is using smaller, lighter-weight trolleys to serve passengers inflight meals and drinks. Even the blankets and tableware got a makeover to reduce overall weight. New slimline seats being installed on the carrier’s planes provide travelers with more leg room but also weigh significantly less.

This author once heard an announcement on a flight from Tokyo Narita with another airline that, due to extreme headwinds, the flight might have to divert for supplemental fuel. A call to action from gate agents encouraged passengers to use the loo before boarding to help lighten the load on board and perhaps avoid that extra stop. The next time you board a flight, think about the weight you are carrying aboard and what you can do about it. Even with an action as small as using the restroom at the airport, you may just be helping a little.

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