Inflight Luxury: Who Really Pays?

A couple of weeks ago Etihad Airways, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates, introduced in its new Airbus A380 jumbo jets “The Residence”, a 125-square-foot, three-room suite. It’s your basic all-in-one living space in the sky, with a living room, bathroom, and bedroom, not to mention a personal butler, chef, and shower. All this luxury comes at a price, however: as much as $43,000 for some flights, and a load of additional carbon to the atmosphere. How much additional carbon? That’s a good question.

A World Bank study (pdf) estimated that the carbon footprint of a passenger flying business class can be three times more than one flying economy; for a passenger flying first-class it can be nine times greater. Larger seats mean fewer passengers are able to fit in a given space, and load factors are typically lower in first class and business class—that is, more of those seats are empty, meaning even fewer passengers.

So exactly how carbon-intensive is Etihad’s new luxury accommodation? To begin to answer the question, we can assign emissions to individual passengers based on the floor area that they occupy on the plane, then use Piano-5, an aircraft emissions and performance model, to estimate emissions from a single flight on its Abu Dhabi–London (AHU–LHR) route. The Etihad A380 design consists of 417 economy seats on the main deck, plus 70 economy seats, 9 “First Apartments,” and The Residence on its upper deck. On its own, The Residence accounts for over 3% of the total passenger seating (or “living”) area. Assuming the best-case scenario of a full flight (100% load factor), the carbon footprint of a passenger in The Residence would be about 7,700 lbs CO2, compared to only about 520 lbs CO2 for an economy passenger—roughly 15 times greater.

Guest Travel Class Seating Est. Area Occupied
(sq. ft)
Est. Carbon Footprint
(lbs CO2/
The Residence 2 125 7,700
First Class Seat (The Apartments) 9 39 4,800
Business Class Seat 70 22 2,760
Economy Class Seat 417 4 520

For reference, the annual average CO2 emissions per passenger vehicle in the U.S. is about 10,360 lbs.

The A380 is marketed as a “green giant” and one of the most environmentally advanced aircraft out there. But that spin is based on a maximum-capacity aircraft configuration, or about 850 economy passengers. In reality, a typical A380 aircraft has 525 seats. Its fuel performance is comparable to that of a B747-400 ER and even about 15% worse than a B777-300ER on a passenger-mile basis (calculated using Piano-5 on a flight from AUH to LHR, assuming an 80% passenger load factor, and in-service fleet average seat counts).

For those to whom price is no obstacle, it may seem unremarkable that airlines should compete to offer “the world’s most luxurious living space in the air.” Those of us concerned about the cost to the environment, though, should be looking for ways to get airlines to compete on a different measure.

GHG emissions