A few weeks back we ran a piece about how UPS was using advanced logistics to reduce energy consumption and emissions while cutting costs at the same time. This is done by calculating optimum routes and traveling the minimum distances.
If this works well with 10-ton delivery trucks that are rolling around on wheels, imagine how much better it can work with 50-ton jet aircraft that are being lifted miles into the air. It is just common sense. But pilots are not able to choose their own routes, they must follow the guidance of the air traffic control (ATC) system, which has safety as its top priority, with attention to secondary concerns such as wait times and fuel consumption being served as resources allow.
But that system, which is now over fifty years old in many places, is struggling to keep up with a substantial increase in traffic volume and has its resources stretched pretty thin just dealing with its primary function. For example, the fact that the current, radar-based system only updates every 12 seconds requires substantial spacing between planes that would not be necessary with a faster, more modern system.
British inventor, Ned Parkinson, has been pushing for a new digital system that he claims could reduce emissions by as much as 8 percent, by simply directing airplanes on routes that are more efficient, while still maintaining sufficient separation distances to ensure passenger safety. That might not seem like a lot, but it equals 40 million metric tons worldwide, which is roughly equivalent to the carbon footprint of the Denmark, a land of more than 5.5 million people. And, keep in mind, it will be achieved by essentially updating the electronics and writing new, albeit incredibly complex, software. Those savings also count for more at high altitude than they would on the ground by about a factor of two.
Parkinson already has a working prototype running. It looks much the same as today’s controller screens, except that it calculates the most efficient trajectories for each plane. But despite Parkinson’s impressive credentials (he helped design the North Atlantic ATC system, in use for over twenty years), the British National Air Traffic Safety (NATS) authorities don’t seem particularly interested in implementing his system.
Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, GE, in conjunction with the FAA, is developing a new GPS-based ATC system called NextGen. This technology will provide an extraordinary range of features, including better tracking accuracy, on-board weather capability and perhaps most important from an energy-savings perspective, continuous descent approach capability which has been shown to save anywhere between 50 and 80 gallons of fuel per descent. When you consider some 30,000 flights per day in the US alone that could potentially take advantage of this technology, that’s a savings of some two million gallons of jet fuel every day. Some airlines have been a little slow to incorporate this technology, hoping that the FAA will eventually agree to pay for the required upgrades. But Southwest Airlines is investing $175 million of their own money to install this technology at three airports - that will save 3 minutes for every flight. According to FAA Administrator Randy Babbit, they expect to recover their entire investment in two years from the fuel savings.
At the time of this writing, 47 US airports have incorporated at least some aspects of NextGen technology. And while air travel is still the most carbon intensive way to travel, it is getting increasingly less so.
But as new rules come into play, like the EU’s newly passed carbon tax which will almost certainly raise fares, many people are going to start considering other options.
[Image credit: weskriesel:Flickr Creative Commons]
RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
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