Driving, taking the bus, or riding on the train – all forms of transportation have an impact on the environment and are directly related to greenhouse gas emissions. Aviation is no exception to the rule – the industry is responsible for 2% of global CO2 emissions. In the face of growing demand and increase in traffic, everyone from airports and airlines, to manufacturers and air-traffic controllers, are working to limit emissions and increase efficiency.
98 years ago, the Wright brothers successfully made the first controlled, powered and sustained human flight. This innovative step has continued to stimulate changes in the aviation industry in the face of many challenges, with the main contemporary problem being climate change. An investigation into what is being done to limit CO2 emissions, while keeping flights safe, comfortable and accessible, reveals that technology, operations, and infrastructure may all hold the key to reducing mankind’s carbon footprint.
Although most passengers are not aware of this, aircraft are constantly changing. Technological innovation in the aviation industry is comparable to that in personal computers, even though the latter have a much shorter history. It should come to a surprise that since the 1970’s, airplanes have become over 70% more efficient in their fuel-use. All components of aircraft design – from the engines to the tips of the wings – are testimony to increasing innovation in the industry.
The most important role in an airplane’s fuel efficiency is the engines. Jet fuel is one of the highest cost items for an airline, and with the increasingly volatile price of oil, it has become a necessity for the industry to make fuel-efficient engines. The two most-widely used aircraft today – the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320 – have shown that newer models of the same aircraft can not only carry more passengers and payload, but do so while burning 23% less fuel. Airbus continues to invest $265 million annually for research and development for fuel-efficiency.
Another important aspect which has been continuously innovated is the structural design of airplanes. Airfoils – the cross-sectional shape of wings – which have a great impact at the high-speed phase of a flight, have made balancing weight, wingspan and area more favorable. The Air Transport Action Group’s research shows that something as simple as adding winglets tilted upwards at the tips on old aircraft can reduce fuel burn by 3-5%.
An aircraft has a general life-time of at least 25 years. This means that it has to be maintained and modified as new technologies become available. Correcting defects during general maintenance, such as removing scratches or chipped paint, can ensure that the plane retains its aerodynamic integrity and can reduce fuel consumption by 0.5%. Innovation in lighter paint has also proven to reduce the weight of the airplane by 10-20%. KLM has already introduced such a modification to its fleet and has reported a reduction in CO2 emissions as a result.
Furthermore, there is a direct relationship between the weight of the aircraft and the amount of fuel required to keep it in the air. An experimental flight conducted by AeroMexico showed that by reducing the weight of the beverage cart by 9kg, separating organic from inorganic waste, and reducing the amount of in-flight printed materials saved 555 kg of CO2. On average, there are 50,000 flight every day, meaning that if every one of them introduced these ideas, the total savings would amount to around 28,000 tonnes of CO2 per day. At the same time, Air France has installed lighter seats on its aircraft, which allows them to burn less fuel.
Flight-planning and flight-management have also aided improvements in fuel-efficiency. Exploiting prevailing winds, precise calculations of fuel loads and adjusting aircraft speed has allowed pilots to become environmentally friendly. Even simple planning like placing more weight at the rear-end of the plane and determining the exact center of gravity of the craft can contribute to reductions in fuel consumption.
Air corridors – the highways of the sky. These are narrow and predetermined routes that airplanes fly in from their point of departure to their destination. Yet, recent research conducted by the Air Transport Action Group shows that 8% of all aviation fuel is wasted as a result of route inefficiency. Now, a new form of Air Traffic Management (ATM) is being introduced, with the aim of redesigning routes around the performance of the flight, managing the optimized use of airspace, and allowing computers to plot their own, most efficient, route. Research and experiments conducted by Iberia Spanish Airlines has shown that a reduction of 6-12% of fuel use can be achieved through this system.
Airports have also joined the effort to reduce their environmental impact. By developing ‘green departures’ which allow pilots to take-off and climb to their desired altitude in one, smooth ascent, Copenhagen airport has reported a reduction of 32,000 tonnes of CO2 in one year. Another project, focusing on approach and landing operations through a new method called ‘continuous descent operations (CDO), where an airplane descends from its optimal altitude in a continuous motion, can lead to fuel savings of up to 40% during the approach phase. If Europe introduces CDO more widely, 500,000 tonnes of CO2 could possible be saved (Birmingham’s airport has proven that 13,000 tonnes of CO2 were saved in a year using CDO).
Furthermore, several airports have introduced fixed electrical power units which allow an aircraft to plug in while waiting at the gate instead of burning its engine fuel for power. Zurich Airport has reportedly saved 30,000 tonnes of CO2 per year through installing such units at its 50 gates. London Heathrow, the world’s busiest airport, has also introduced a similar system, which includes pre-conditioned air being being delivered to aircraft while at the gate, and has estimated a 100,000 tonnes of CO2 reduction per year.
Through plugging in airplanes, there is a greater electricity usage at airports by airplanes, and through an increase in passengers, more electricity is used for lights and air-conditioning. Yet, an initiative by Paris Orly Airport has recently saved 9,000 tonnes of CO2 per year by drilling a bore hole to gather naturally heated water to warm its terminal. Also, Vancouver Airport’s installation of solar panels has reduced the use of natural gas by 30% since 2001. In the meanwhile, Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport has been proclaimed the first carbon neutral airport in the world through a combination of biofuel-based heating and renewable energy sources for electricity.
Through these technological, operational and infrastructure innovations, the aviation industry has acted to reduce mankind’s environmental footprint. With the necessary commitment and the already-existent willpower, it sets an example for other, more polluting industries. The next time you fly with the companies or to the airports mentioned above, be sure that you are flying greener than others.