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Green of the road: Airlines, hotels, cars more eco-friendly

May. 13, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By NANCY TREJOS   |   Comments

When you travel these days, you’re doing so in a more environmentally friendly fashion than you did a decade ago — and you probably can’t even tell.

Airlines are flying planes that have more fuel-efficient engines and are lighter in weight to save on costly jet fuel. Architects are designing hotels to be more efficient in their use of energy and water, and to reduce waste. Rental car agencies are adding more hybrid and electric cars to their fleets.

Some steps have been forced on the industry by the threat of government action, sheer economics or customer demands. But some companies say it’s just good business.

Many associations, for instance, refuse to gather in hotels that don’t meet environmentally friendly standards.

“We actually have customers who are asking, ‘What’s the carbon footprint of our meeting?’ ” says Paul Snyder, vice president of corporate responsibility for IHG, parent company of InterContinental Hotels, Holiday Inn and others.

In a TripAdvisor survey of 700 U.S. travelers last year, 57 percent said they often make eco-friendly travel decisions.

But Adam Weissenberg, leader of Deloitte’s U.S. Travel, Hospitality and Leisure practice, says price still drives most travel decisions. “There’s not a lot of desire yet for people to pay extra for this in general,” he says. “I think there’s more of a ‘This is the right thing to do.’ ”

Among ways the travel industry is responding to a demand to go green:

Hotels

Hotels have progressed far beyond giving guests the option of not having their towels and linens changed every day.

They’re building green hotels or retrofitting old properties to be more sustainable. In 2008, there were only 18 hotels with LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, certification awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council, an industry nonprofit. Last year, there were 198 LEED-certified properties.

Green buildings, on average, use 26 percent less energy, emit 33 percent less carbon dioxide, use 30 percent less water, and produce 50 percent to 75percent less solid waste, according to the building council.

Hotels also are adopting motion sensors, key cards that control lights, fluorescent bulbs and ceiling fans aimed at saving energy. To save water, they’re installing low-flow shower heads and low-flow toilets. They’re recycling more and replacing individual shampoo bottles with large dispensers.

More than 2,250 of IHG’s hotels participate in the company’s “Green Engage” program, an online tool that helps the properties measure and report their energy, water and waste. They can see how they stack up against each other and take actions to be more green. The program has helped hotels save 10 percent to 25 percent on energy costs, IHG says.

Starwood’s Element Hotels, meanwhile, is seeking LEED certification, the group says. Among other steps, its fitness centers have stationary bikes with pedal-powered generators to charge tablets or smartphones.

Choice Hotels International’s Econo Lodge hotels recently announced all properties must join the “Room to be Green” program this year. They must use energy-efficient indoor lighting such as LED bulbs, offer guests the chance to reuse towels and linens, and have a recycling program.

Airlines

Airlines have saved more than $33 billion on fuel and prevented the release of 670 billion pounds of greenhouse gases since 2000, according to Brighter Planet, which measures companies’ carbon footprint.

“For an airline, there’s more incentive to be fuel-efficient,” says Dawna Rhoades, an associate dean at the College of Business at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “It is 20 percent to 30 percent of their costs. That’s a lot.”

Plane manufacturers are building more fuel-efficient planes.

Airlines have adopted new technology and practices to reduce their carbon footprints.

US Airways, for instance, is replacing gas-powered ground vehicles that transport bags with electric ones at its Philadelphia hub. A new building to house the vehicles at Philadelphia International Airport was made of 20 percent recycled materials.

The airline, along with most others around the world, is looking into alternative fuels such as biodiesel, a blend of soybean oil and diesel fuel that produces fewer emissions and extends the life of the engine, says Vince Costanzo, managing director of Stations Operations Support.

Jimmy Samartzis, managing director of global environmental affairs and sustainability for United Airlines, says the carrier has used 32 percent less fuel since 1994 and is now experimenting with alternative fuels. The airline has added winglets to the wing tips of its planes to reduce drag and improve fuel efficiency.

Nancy Young, vice president of environmental affairs for industry group Airlines for America, says the airline industry has improved its fuel efficiency by 120 percent since 1978 and now accounts for only 2 percent of the nation’s greenhouse emissions.

“It’s the equivalent of taking 22 million cars off the road each year,” she says.

Rental cars

Major car rental companies are adding electric cars to their already growing hybrid fleets.

Enterprise has more than 5,000 hybrids and electric vehicles available for rent at 70 locations.

Avis Budget has about 4,800 gas/electric hybrid vehicles available. The company keeps a small number of Chevrolet Volt electric vehicles (EVs) at New York’s LaGuardia.

Hertz plans on adding more green vehicles to its fleet, says spokesman Lemore Hecht. It also has a car-sharing program.

David Eastes, a director at VroomVroomVroom.com, which tracks the industry, says he has seen an increase in the number of companies dedicated solely to renting out hybrid or electric vehicles, such as MPGCarRental.com in Los Angeles. “That’s never been seen before,” he says.

But hybrid and electric cars tend to cost more to rent. Avis Budget spokesman John Barrows says the hybrid vehicles have daily rates approximately 10 percent to 15 percent higher than standard-engine vehicles of similar size.

Deloitte’s Weissenberg says that could deter some travelers from opting for the cars. But, he points out that even regular rental cars are becoming more environmentally friendly.

Scott Zebedis, who works at a nonprofit foundation in Anderson, Ind., will try to rent a hybrid whenever he can.

“It saves money on gas,” he says.

Nancy Trejos reports for USA Today.

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