Ski bummer

Could winter tourism hurt the very climate it seeks?

Mexican airline Volaris offers nonstop flights to Reno from Guadalajara. Direct flights from London are coming later this year.

Mexican airline Volaris offers nonstop flights to Reno from Guadalajara. Direct flights from London are coming later this year.

Ponder this one, if you will. As cities such as New York and London arrange for nonstop flights into Reno—flights marketed to tourists, who often want to ski—couldn’t the carbon footprint of jet travel eventually affect the same snowfall needed for skiing to even happen? Hypothetically speaking, that is?

“As far as how much an individual flight contributes to [climate change], I don’t know,” said Nevada state climatologist Douglas Boyle, “but the basic concept is that the burning of fossil fuel is putting more carbon into the atmosphere, which is warming the atmosphere.”

The question has a flip-side that’s probably more palatable to the airline industry. If ski and gambling tourists are coming from abroad anyway, would a direct flight at least be greener than a circuitous one with stops or plane changes? It’d use less fuel, right?

“There are way too many variables,” Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor replied in an email. “What kind of aircraft? What is the weather? How high is the aircraft flying? Are they flying conventional approaches or optimized profile descents? How heavy is the aircraft? How long are the connecting flights?”

Gregor cited the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), a program he said “often results in more direct routing, unrestricted climbs and optimized descents, all of which can reduce fuel burn and associated CO2 emissions.” Optimized descents “allow aircraft to descend continuously,” the FAA website explains, and “employ minimum engine thrust, in a low drag configuration.”

Meanwhile, Thomas Cook, the British charter airline that’ll bring visitors from across the pond starting in December, boasts it was first in its industry to get ISO 14001 certification—an eco-conscious but somewhat vague benchmark for businesses worldwide. Reno-Tahoe International Airport spokesman Brian Kulpin posits that Europeans tend to be good stewards of the environment anyway, so they’ll tread carefully once here.

“When you’re doing international flights, the people who book these are oftentimes very ecologically minded,” he said. “For instance, taking the bus [to Tahoe] rather than taking 14 separate rental cars, well, that’s more of a European mindset than an American mindset.”

As of last month, Mexican airline Volaris now flies directly from Guadalajara to Reno—usually with full planes, Kulpin said, and around 150 passengers at a time. Many are reconnecting with their families, not hitting the slopes.

“Before, [relatives picking up travelers] had to drive all the way to Sacramento, or to Las Vegas, or sometimes to the Mexican border,” he said, “so we’re saving a lot of automobile traffic and auto fuel by having this flight.”

Back to the full-circle irony of jet travel for winter sports, though.

“As a scientist, I would certainly not say that that is factual,” Boyle said. “But I’d say it’s certainly a reasonable thing to take a look at. I don’t think we really know yet how exactly our local weather is impacted by the general warming of the atmosphere due to fossil fuels. But there are a lot of hypotheses, and there is a tremendous amount of work that is going on … to tease out the complicated connection there.”