Do you travel? Have you thought of coming up with your own ‘flight biography’? I did recently, and what I discovered was quite interesting. But let’s start from the beginning… Few weeks ago, as I was waiting in line to board a plane in Milan headed to New York City, I promised myself I would avoid working during the flight and try to rest, perhaps reading a good book or watching a couple of movies still on my To-Do list. Yet, once the flight took off and we reached cruising altitude, that promise seemed already forgotten: without even realizing it, I took my laptop out of my backpack and pressed ON. Darn habits! While I could have easily fallen into the dark hole of the n-th Stakhanovite flight, for once I stayed strong, remembered my promise… and decided to use my already-ON laptop for something else.
Even though I never thought of the idea before, I thought it could be ‘fun’ to track in an Excel my “Life [Flight] Biography”. Ehm, yes, I know: totally weird and nerdish thought. Yet, I found it such a curious idea to exercise my memory to go as back as I could remembering my first flight, the young years in college, my first traveling years as a consultant, and more, that moments after (as soon as I could go back to consciousness), I was already formatting rows and columns of the spreadsheet with “From’s”, “To’s”, “Distances”, “Number of flights”, and cool automated formulas. It took me 2 minutes to make the decision, and at least two or three hours of that flight were filled with an ‘activity’.
Did I just decide to waste 2-3 hours of my life? Perhaps… but, first of all, let’s look at what came out of that.
With the important premise that all these numbers are actually probably quite conservative since I have accounted only for all the trips I actually remembered taking, the total distance travelled sums up to 1,306,380 kilometers (yeap, that is ONE MILLION THREE HUNDRED SIX THOUSAND AND THREE HUNDRED EIGHTY Kilometers), or about 812,000 miles. Considering the circumference of Earth is about 40,075 km, this means I have gone around the planet at least 32 times, or also reached the Moon and back 1.5 times, since the distance between our planet and the moon is about 384,400 km. Basically I went to the Moon and back, then reached the Moon a second time, but decided to stay there (perhaps ashamed to face people who would actually read this post 😉 ).
To travel this distance I took at least 536 planes in a span of 29 years of traveling (I started at 14, in 1987, and never stopped). That means about 20 flights per year, even though I reached my record in the years 2000-2003 and 2005-2007 where business (more than pleasure) brought me all over the world taking probably hundreds of flights per year.
Perhaps more interestingly, my flight biography tells me I have visited a total of about 300 cities and 50 countries (I guess about 25% of the total nations on this planet today), and for all of them I made the effort to learn about their people and culture whenever I could, staying at least few days in the weekend if what brought me there was just a business trip.
Now, besides the initial counters, the considerations could get more interesting, and made me think. First of all, considering the average speed of the types of airplanes I took, I probably spent about 1500 hours flying around the planet, or about 60 full days (basically 2 months detached from the ground). If we then add the disproportionate amount of time to check in, board, check out, waiting for luggage, etc… considering the 536 planes, I can estimate that I spent another 1500-2000 hrs just waiting around, before and after, a flight was completed. That is another 2-2.5 months. That’s NOT good!
But let’s take another perspective on this. How much did I spend? Well, that is a bit more complicated calculation to do. On shorter flights (let’s say a Milan to Paris), the cost per kilometer flown is much higher than for an international flight. For this reason, I split my flights in ‘short-haul’ and ‘long-haul’, assiging a value of €0.40/km for the short-hauls while a value of €0.10 for the long-hauls. Given the approximation of having flown about 60% of the total kilometers as short-hauls, I probably spent (directly or by the companies I worked for) about €370,000 in flights. That is a nice apartment in Milan!
OK, one more perhaps-useless perspective before letting you go on this reading: How much did I pollute with all this traveling? I fear to respond to this question… but let’s do it! On with the calculations. By reading some interesting articles on the environmental impact of air-travel, it seems not easy to estimate accurately the greenhouse gas emissions per passenger kilometer. My separation of total km travelled between ‘long-haul’ and ‘short-haul’ comes handy again though, since, as you could guess, short-haul flights pollute more than longer ones (think of lift-off and reaching cruising altitudes, for one). But to estimate well my negative effects on the climate, I also need to consider in this case domestic vs non-domestic flights. Why? Well, because apparently the pollution caused by aircrafts depends also on the model of the plane and the altitude at which it flies. To make the long story short, considering a 60-40 between short and long hauls, of which probably 80% were non-domestic flights, in these 29 years I ended up polluting an extra 171,700 kilograms of CO2e (which is the unit of measure for our carbon footprint). OK, now I know that air-transportation affects overall world pollution by just 2% of the entire CO2e created on this planet, that wopping number certainly does not make me feel good. [Here is a good start to read about the basis for my calculations: Wikipedia – Greenhouse Gas Emissions per Passenger Kilometer]
If you reached this last paragraph of this (most probably boring) reading, the question probably comes out quite naturally to you now: “So, what was the point of this exercise? Was it totally pointless to do all these calculations and create a flight biography or did you get something out of it?” Well, not sure about your opinion, but as a matter of fact what started as a ‘nerdish’ exercise of memory for me turned out to be quite interesting food-for-thought. I never gave the right relevance about the effects (not always positive) of all my (often) exciting traveling. Numbers sum up, slowly but surely, and the totals make you think.
Should I have travelled less, visiting less cities and countries in the world, but spending more time outside of airports and planes? Should I have thought twice about catching an expensive plane last minute, to reduce a bit my carbon-footprint? I really don’t know… but I enjoyed writing my first ‘flight biography’, thinking about it, and sharing that thought with you.