Aircraft condensation trails are composed mainly of very small ice particles, which linger for some time depending on atmospheric conditions. Though there may be some other compounds, like sulfur gases, contained in the trails, the main ingredient is water vapor, and they do not seem to be a big environmental problem. The main environmental impact associated with flying is actually the invisible stream of carbon dioxide – the world’s most important greenhouse gas – that is spewed out behind a plane. Aviation is currently responsible for about 3.5% of global warming, but for an individual a single long airplane flight can account for a much larger percentage of your annual carbon footprint. The carbon dioxide emitted by planes is not visible to the human eye; yet because of it’s contribution to global warming, it is far more dangerous than the visible trails of condensation.
Contrails might be an issue given that they distribute clouds in areas different than regular weather patterns. This might alter an area’s albedo or cloud cover, which affects weather. However, carbon dioxide emissions are likely far more serious, as nickengelfried mentioned.
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