Monday, June 13, 2011

SFO's Terminal Two: the Mire of Feel-Good Environmentalism

Last year, after saving up for years & years, I blew most of my accumulated United Airlines miles on a domestic flight. Then, in a startlingly callous act of customer disloyalty, I decided that exercising my option for a freebie had the effect of loosening my reins. With my balance radically lowered, I was free to fly on Those Other Carriers without worrying too much that I'm not accumulating precious (or, in my experience, overvalued) miles.

April's gala opening of SF International Airport's rebuilt "Terminal 2" led to an obvious choice: Virgin America, Sir Richard Branson's shiny new U.S. carrier, based right there in the airport from which I most frequently fly. I booked Virgin America to travel to the east coast and back last week, for a meeting in the DC area and some R&R in New York (see last week's post about New York's heat wave; I had a great time despite the beastly weather, more anon).

Let me start by saying several nice things.

First, Virgin America is a pleasure to fly. Nice leather seats. Nice individual touchscreen TV + music + order food anytime + flight-map device in the seatback in front of each passenger, and -- yes! -- it has an off switch so a decent, TV-hostile passenger can read. A book, not a Kindle. A hardback, no less (Ransom, by David Malouf). Nice flight crew, younger and hipper than you might have encountered on certain other airlines in which the staff have invested major fractions of their working lives (I'm not calling this a good or a bad thing, it is what it is). The most amusing bit was on the outbound flight, in which one crew member kept exhorting passengers to ask his fellow crewmember -- who'd gotten some distance along the American Idol road to ... to ... to wherever the heck that road leads -- to demonstrate her vocal talents. And, for now at least, fares are low, low, low. I just booked another flight, also combining business and R&R, for later this summer, and Virgin America was 40% cheaper than United on the dates I'm traveling to Chicago. Yeah, it's always a crapshoot depending on your travel dates and when you book ... but jeez. 40% cheaper? It would have been downright irresponsible to my financially ailing employer to buy a ticket on my "usual" carrier. (Word to the wise: for a great way to search for the fares and schedules you want.)

Second nice thing: SFO's Terminal 2 is nicely laid out, the art is humane, the space is scaled to human proportions (I flew back out of JFK, don't ask), and the concessionaires include decent places to eat. Not just food you can choke down, but food you might actually enjoy. It's enough to make you think you're in an airport local to some of the foodiest communities on the continent. I had a baked-to-order pizza at the Napa Farms Market, and -- miracle of miracles -- it was a meal I would have enjoyed even if I weren't in an airport. Okay, enough free advertising, this blog is not monetized.

Third nice thing: it's better to save energy than not.

But that third nice thing leads me to think it'd be a good idea to take a closer look at this newborn addition to San Francisco's airport.

SFO's Terminal 2 has been trumpeted as a significant advance in modern passenger air travel. The terminal won Gold Certification from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program of the U.S. Green Building Council, the first airline terminal in the world to achieve that certification.

SFO's own description reads: "Designed to improve indoor air quality and reduce energy consumption, the innovative sustainable elements included in Terminal 2 will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the facility by an estimated 1,667 tons per year." The page from which this is taken suggests that most of the reduction is a product of lower electrical energy consumption. Also from the same source, "SFO will provide PC Air and 400 Hz power supply to aircraft at all T2 gates, reducing jet fuel consumption by aircraft Auxiliary Power Units (APU) by 1,400,000 gallons per year and reducing CO2 emissions by approximately 15,000 tons per year."

Add it up: 16,667 fewer tons of greenhouse gas emmissions per year than your standard-issue terminal.

Sounds pretty good, eh? Getting to one's gate sure feels better than your usual stale-air and florescent-lighting walk through an airport terminal. (There's something spooky about the fact that it's called a terminal, don't you think?)

But I had a nagging suspicion. You know the kind I mean. The suspicion that anything that looks that good has to be papering over a story that's rougher around the edges. So I did a little research. Just a little -- I'm not claiming to have the final report prepared here, and would love to hear from folks who know better than I do.

Let's start with some facts:

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics gives 12 month stats for passenger enplanements and miles in the U.S. -- 728,920,000 and 813,160,763,000 respectively from March 2010 through February 2011.

In describing the environmental impact of air travel, Wikipedia cites statistics from Finland that peg CO2 emissions at somewhere between 114 and 178 grams per passenger-kilometer (g/pkg) depending on whether flights are long-haul or a medium domestic (within Finland) distance.

SFO's T2 "About" page tells that the new terminal has "capacity for 5.5 million enplaned passengers per year, and a projected 3.2 million enplaned passengers in the first full year of operation." (These numbers are offered prospectively: the page from which they are gleaned has not been updated, as of this blog's composition, to reflect the fact the terminal is now open.)

Okay? If those are the facts, it's now back-of-the-napkin time.

Let's split the difference between the number of "enplaned passengers" for which T2 has capacity, according to SFO, and the number projected in its current first year of operation: call it 4.35 million.

Using the BTS stats cited above, assuming (back-of-napkin, remember?) that traffic from SFO is average in length of trip, and converting passenger miles to passenger kilometers, we get the BTS reporting an average trip of about 1795 kilometers per passenger during the period covered.

And working from the CO2 emmissions estimates -- again splitting the difference in the range given by the Finnish organization LIPASTO -- we're talking CO2 emissions of something on the order of 262 Kg/passenger-trip.

That's 1,140,213,300 Kg of CO2 emmissions per year for the passengers who are expected to enplane at Terminal 2 each year. (I can't say I've understood this correctly, but the language leads one to believe that passenger 'deplanements' aren't included in the SFO stats given above. Fair enough. Let the arrivals count against some other airport's CO2 boo-boos.)

Turning kilograms into tons, we're talking 1,256,870 tons of CO2 emitted in the course of passenger air travel embarked upon from SFO's Terminal 2 each year.

(Ah, units-of-measure. Brings you right back to high school physics. Word to the wise: Google unit conversion.)

So, comparing apples to apples:

  • Terminal 2's annual CO2 emissions reduction, in tons: 16,667
  • CO2 emitted annually by air travel originating at Terminal 2, in tons: 1,256,870

And, Q.E.D., how does the back-of-napkin comparison boil down? Environmentally oriented features at SFO's Terminal 2 reduce CO2 emissions by 1.33% of the quantity of CO2 spewed by the air travel that originates at its gates.

Can that be right? Any engineers out there want to shoot holes in my napkin?

It might still feel good to fly in and out of the new terminal at San Francisco International Airport. But if I've done credible arithmetic, we can't delude ourselves. Groovy new airports don't solve the fundamental problem that jet planes are bad bad bad for our planet's climactic equilibrium. They're not going to right the ship.

I'm expecting that next pizza at Napa Farms Market, the one I might well order on my way to Chicago next month, won't taste quite as good as the first.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
The radiation cloud is blowing in the wind
Digging deeper holes
Things fall apart

1 comment:

  1. I have serious doubt regarding LEED certificates. Once issued, no one revisits the buildings/sites to ensure the standards have been maintained and no modifications have been made ...

    Matthew Felix Sun