Before the pandemic, aviation contributed approximately 2.5 percent of global CO2 emissions. That may not seem like a whole lot, but at that time, passenger air travel was claiming the fastest growth of individual emissions out of any sector. Of course, last year looked different — industry revenues dropped to less than half that of 2019.
Even during the pandemic, though, airlines have been under pressure to make progress on decarbonizing. After all, a 2050 aim for carbon neutrality from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) still looms large for the globe, including all nations and their corporations.
So, how can air travel decarbonize in an increasingly carbon-sensitive world? Two of the biggest potential tactics that can move us toward a more climate-friendly industry — sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and electrification of fleets — are still in their nascent stages of development. In an industry that was already focused on saving fuel before the Paris Agreement, innovation will prove essential to continued progress.
Flyways AI is a new technology that makes one little piece of flying more efficient. Out of Silicon Valley, it bills itself as the world’s first artificial intelligence-powered flight monitoring and routing platform — helping dispatchers navigate the skies and optimize routes — like the apps drivers use on the road. Developed by Airspace Intelligence and piloted by Alaska Airlines, the company is implementing the technology as the airline’s de facto system for all mainland travel in the United States.
More efficient routing saves fuel — 480,000 gallons during the six-month pilot period, to be exact, reducing CO2 emissions by 4,600 tons in the process. The potential savings are greater as we exit the pandemic, with more travelers taking flight.
The benefits for air travel extend past carbon reduction. When you improve punctuality in the airline industry, as Diana Birkett Rakow, vice president of public affairs and sustainability for Alaska Airlines, said, you find improvements on many fronts. Predictability improves safety, optimizes cost and sustainability, and even guest satisfaction. In addition to more predictable arrivals, Flyways AI saved an average of five minutes per flight. Even five minutes, Birkett Rakow notes, becomes noticeable. Think of the difference passengers could feel by saving time waiting on a tarmac to take off.
Flyways did not begin with a top-down decision to partner with Airspace Intelligence, Birkett Rakow explained. Instead, the idea came from a flight operations leader and turned into a collaboration working closely with dispatchers to understand and meet their needs. Now, the novel platform could even prove useful to other elements of flight operations, she said, including optimizing gate allocation.
“Flyways lives in that foundational layer of operational efficiency,” where airlines can also begin implementing single engine taxiing and electric ground services equipment — small improvements that add up, even if each only accounts for 1 percent of emissions, Birkett Rakow said. “Any emissions avoided is a set of emissions that doesn't need to be offset,” she added.
Operations are only one piece of the puzzle, of course. "There's a lot of projects in motion at once.... Aviation is very difficult to decarbonize,” Birkett Rakow added. “It's one of the most difficult sectors to decarbonize, and so it's not going to be one thing that makes it work. It's going to be 10, 20, 50, 100 things, and there's complexity in having to work on all of that at once. At the same time, there is some fun grassroots ability in being able to work on all of that at once, because people across our operation are going to have ideas about where they can...avoid carbon emissions, and as those ideas get implemented, we'll continue to improve."
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