NatureAir: Based in Costa Rica, the world's first carbon neutral airline!

By: Shelley Seale

The really bad news for those of us who love to travel is what a big, bad thing that air travel does to our environment. Like cars, we aren’t going to be getting rid of it — so we have to do our best to make it more efficient, less polluting, and offset the environmental factors as much as we can. Up until this time, air travel has done this mostly with things like the carbon offset programs of many major airlines, and organizations like Terra Pass and Carbon Fund that allow travelers to purchase carbon offsets for the emissions caused by travel.

But does that go far enough?

All of this is why I was pretty stoked when I learned about a new type of airline operating out of Costa Rica — just two months before a trip I had already planned to Costa Rica!

flight-destinationsThe airline is called NatureAir, and it’s the world’s first carbon neutral airline. In a way, it was no surprise to me that such a thing started in a place like Costa Rica; that country already has announced plans to become the world’s first carbon-neutral country by 2021, and is already the greenest, happiest country on the planet. It has a huge dedication to wildlife and national park preservation, and employs a lot of environmentally sustainable measures like wind turbines, hydropower and other renewable energy sources that generate more than 3/4 of the country’s electricity.

So how does NatureAir make itself carbon neutral? In 2004, it became the first airline to compensate for 100% of its carbon emissions from flight operations. They do this through a local compensation program, that supports reforestation and conservation programs in Costa Rica.

I immediately contacted the company for more info (my journalistic mind was going a hundred miles an hour!), and started looking up flights on their website. You might think their ticket prices would be higher due to the carbon offsets, but that’s not the case. For example, on 10/8/13 as I write this post I looked up an example flight on NatureAir and Sansa Regional, the country’s domestic airline:

One way from San Jose (SJO) to Quepos/Manuel Antonio
1 Adult
10/29/13 (a Tuesday)

NatureAir returned prices from $34 for their Loco fare (more on fare breakdowns explained later), to $74 for their full Flex fare. Sansa gave me prices of $28-50.

Screen Shot 2013-10-08 at 12.37.31 PM

Screen Shot 2013-10-08 at 12.37.31 PM (2)NatureAir flies to more than a dozen locations within Costa Rica, and also goes to Managua, Nicaragua and Bocas del Toro, Panama.

For my upcoming trip with my boyfriend, Keith, we booked two one-way flights with NatureAir: from Quepos to Tamarindo and then from Tamarindo to San Jose, in August 2013.

Once we were in Costa Rica and the time came to fly carbon neutral, I was pretty excited. Granted, NatureAir is a small airline with small airplanes. These are not jumbo jets flying halfway across the world or anything. We arrived at the tiny hanger of an airport in Quepos where the super friendly, helpful check-in agent was there to help us.

DSC_2735First things first, our bags and our selves had to be weighed, including all of our carry-on hand baggage. When flying on small planes, weight limits are even more important. This brings me to the different fare levels on NatureAir. They have three categories: Loco, Promo and Flex. These offer different fares pretty much based on how much baggage allowance you want to have. The Loco is the cheapest, and you’re allowed 15 pounds of baggage. Promo gets you 27 pounds at a slightly higher fare, and Flex is the most expensive with a 40 pound baggage allowance. If you purchase a lower fare and then your baggage weighs more than the limit, you can pay for the excess weight at check-in.

This accomplishes two things, in my mind. Not only does it allow each passenger to decide whether a cheap fare or higher weight allowance is more important, but it also encourages traveling lighter and toting less baggage. Brilliant.

When we checked in, though, we were given a bit of a surprise. The agent said our flight was full and so, depending on the total baggage weight of all the passengers, some baggage might not be able to make it on the plane. She said that if this happened, NatureAir would drive our baggage via van and it would arrive that same evening at our destination in Tamarindo. She had us fill out a form with our location, address and phone number in Tamarindo.

Of course we didn’t want our baggage to get left behind from our flight, but the fact that it’s safety first was important. Also, getting the bag that same day made it not sound so terrible. Fortunately, everyone was okay on the weight and all our bags were good to go.

1005472_712759048741280_352763978_nOur small group was herded out to the runway where our propeller plane and pilots awaited. As soon as we were settled and had taken off, I was immediately struck by how absolutely beautiful Costa Rica was, seen from the air this way in a small plane. Keith and I had arrived the week before overland, on a bus from Panama. I hadn’t been to Costa Rica in seven years, and gazing down at its gorgeous, lush green hills and coastline and waterfalls, I fell in love with the country all over again.

Our flight a week later from Tamarindo to San Jose further impressed us with NatureAir, and I would highly recommend them to anyone traveling in Costa Rica or its bordering countries. What a fun way to travel, inexpensive and best of all – carbon neutral!

Hopefully more airlines will start doing this type of thing.