United Airlines and the Plight of the Monarch Butterfly

by Daniel Nikulin

Whenever we hear anything positive about the airline industry in relation to the environment, it’s usually about the possible future use of bio-fuels to combat the massive carbon footprint the industry as a whole leaves behind. As positive as this step would clearly be, it is unfortunately years away from becoming reality. Until then, airlines and their vehicles will be viewed as the dirty, pollution causing monsters they are and rightfully so. Rarely and understandably do we hear about any positive effects carbon spewing airplanes have on our precious planet so when I first heard about the initiative that pens The Smithsonian Institution, Airbus Americas, United Airlines and the earth’s smaller, at-risk creatures in a highly anticipated conservation project, aptly called Partners in the Sky, I got pretty excited. At last, I thought, someone is thinking!

It’s no news that there has been a steady decline in the amount of butterflies, bees and certain other birds and insects throughout North America over the past few decades. We’ve all heard about it for years now – about how important pollinators are to the planet that we all share and about how threatened they’ve become. About how without them, there would eventually be no us. Now that scientists have that basic information, the job is to better understand migration habits and to figure out why and how they are dying or perhaps, where have they gone to instead of here?


If we were talking about elephants, wolves or sharks, we’d slap a slick GPS tracking collar on them, gather data through satellite based tracking, analyze it and act accordingly, but birds and bugs? Not so easy. How do you fit a bulky tracking collar on something as delicate as a honey bee or a monarch butterfly? Well, The Smithsonian Institution, on the wings of a United Airlines Airbus aircraft, has come up with a way.

The first step was designing a new, GPS-enabled microchip embedded in a tag weighing as little as 0.15 grams total, with the ability to be fastened to and to be carried by anything from a ten pound bald eagle to something as light as the less-than-a-gram monarch. Once that was developed (and at a relatively low cost), the project could really take flight. The new chips use simple VHF radio technology and track frequencies with receivers mounted on select United Airlines’ Airbus made aircrafts. The 5,000 or so daily United Airlines flights then relay the information back to Smithsonian’s command centre for scientific analysis and hopefully, get the answers scientists are looking for.

Only time will tell how effective the Partners in the Sky research program will be but in such a typically non eco-friendly industry as the airline industry, it is refreshing and exciting to see some forward thinking, consideration for the environment and a truly symbiotic partnership form. Well done, United!

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