01/29/2013 Update: Richard Branson responds to my letter on his blog today: Plastic On Our Airlines.
Dear Richard Branson & David Cush,
This letter serves two purposes. First, to express my sincere gratitude for all you have done to make Virgin America the only airline I can fly without crying the whole time, and second, to ask you to address the issue of plastics on your flights. First, the good stuff.
I’m a nervous flyer. On takeoff, I’ve been known to cut off the circulation in my partner’s hand from gripping it so tightly. And years ago, I had flight attendants offering me free alcohol even before the plane took off (and even though I was sitting in coach) just to calm me down. But nowadays, after a little hypnotherapy and the advent of Virgin America, I actually enjoy flying. Which is fortunate, because after the release of my book last year, I’ve found myself sitting on planes probably more often than in all other years combined.
The Flying Womb
From the moment I enter a Virgin America plane, I feel calm. Perhaps that is because of the soothing blue and lavender mood lighting. Really, your cabins are just lovely.
The seats are soft and comfy. And as soon as I sit down, I can plug in my headphones (my own that I bring with me) and listen to pretty much any kind of music I want through the personal entertainment system at my seat, even during take-off and landing. Federal law requires passengers to shut off electronic devices on take-off, which used to make it impossible for me to listen to the music that would help keep me calm during the most stressful part of the flight. Call it superstition, but I believe Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” keeps the plane in the air. I have to play it every time the plane takes off. Please don’t ever remove it from your playlist. Seriously. I’ve Tweeted about it.
During the flight, I can choose movies or shows to watch or even access the Internet via Wifi.
I can even check the progress of my flight any time I want.
I know the healthy adult thing would probably be to meditate instead of zoning out in front of a screen, but when I’m on a plane, I don’t want to be an adult. And curling up on one of your planes feels to me like being in a giant flying womb, all warm and soft and safe. I don’t know if that was what you were going for, but if so, you succeeded.
Guilt About Flying
While I might feel all snug and happy on your planes, I also carry a heavy load of guilt for all the flying I’ve had to do in the past year. You know more than I how much CO2 the airline industry generates. And since I am an environmental activist giving talks and presentations about reducing our plastic consumption, it’s ironic that the more I get out there and spread the word, the more my carbon footprint increases. So I was interested to learn what you guys are doing to address issues of environmental sustainability. I checked out the sustainability page on your website. I’m happy to know you are working on developing more efficient planes, that your buildings are LEED certified, and that through your partnership with San Francisco International Airport, your new terminal is LEED-gold certified.
I personally have been impressed with the recycling/compost station in SFO’s Virgin America terminal
and even more so with the water bottle filling station. The station encourages passengers to fill up their own bottle before getting on the plane instead of consuming water from disposable plastic bottles.
A plane full of plastic bottles
In light of your environmental efforts and educational signage about bottled water, I’m always surprised by the mini plastic bottles of water offered to passengers on your flights.
And despite your messaging in the airport terminal encouraging passengers to bring their own bottles, your own safety video that is shown before every flight portrays a passenger drinking water from a disposable plastic bottle.
On other airlines, flight attendants pour water from bigger bottles. If, on a long flight, I run out of the water I brought with me from the bottle filling station, I can at least ask to have my reusable bottle filled from the bigger bottle and save a little plastic.
It might not seem like such a big plastic savings… switching from little bottles to bigger ones, but you would decrease the number of plastic caps by half. Think how many bottle caps would not end up in the bellies of sea birds.
Of course, even better would be a large water dispenser instead of individual plastic bottles. Why not have a way to refill bottles on the plane as well as in the airport?
Reducing Aviation’s Plastic Footprint
Sir Richard, last summer you wrote a blog post asking your readers to suggest alternatives to the plastic wrap used to secure bags at airports. And recently, I was thrilled to discover a blog post announcing that you are supporting the Whole World Water Campaign to eliminate plastic bottles at your home of Necker Island and instead bottle your own water in glass.
Virgin America is a leader in the airline industry. I’m wondering, in addition to worrying about small things like plastic bottles, what could be done to minimize the impact of all the plastic used inside airplanes? From floor to ceiling, the plane is one big plastic box. What about developing a more sustainable material? Plastic from plant waste? Plastic from recycled materials? I realize that plastics make planes lightweight, and that reducing the weight reduces the CO2 emissions. But plastics also contain toxic chemicals that can leach out and offgas. And the production of plastic from fossil fuels is a dirty business.
What ideas do you have for reducing aviation’s plastic footprint? And for making my little womb in the sky, which helps me reach people all over the country with the message of plastic-free living, as non-toxic and sustainable as possible?