Airlines Can Cut Emissions by Riding the Wind Better, Study Says

Optimizing the way aircraft ride the jet stream could lead to a 16% reduction in fuel usage.
Chris Young

Airlines can reduce emissions and save on fuel costs for transatlantic flights by improving the method they use to hitch a ride on the jet stream, a new study by researchers at the University of Reading attests.

Specifically, the scientists found that commercial flights between New York and London last winter could have used as much as 16 percent less fuel if they made better use of fast-moving high-altitude winds.


Optimizing flight paths, procedures

As new satellites will soon improve the tracking of transatlantic flights, the scientists say that this can allow aircraft to be more flexible in their flight paths. 

This, in turn, means that aircraft can adapt their flight paths during a long-haul flight in order to more accurately follow favorable tailwinds and avoid headwinds.

The new proposal isn't the first time an educational institute has recommended emission-cutting changes to flight procedures: last year, a Ph.D. student at MIT proposed a "delayed deceleration approach" for landing that could similarly reduce CO2 emissions.

Immediate cost-effective benefits

The University of Reading researchers say their method is cost-effective for airlines and is also an effective way for the aviation industry to reduce emissions.

"Current transatlantic flight paths mean aircraft are burning more fuel and emitting more carbon dioxide than they need to," Cathie Wells, a Ph.D. researcher in mathematics at the University of Reading and lead author of the research, explained in a press release.

"Although winds are taken into account to some degree when planning routes, considerations such as reducing the total cost of operating the flight are currently given a higher priority than minimizing the fuel burn and pollution," Wells continued.

The researchers say that whilst upgrading to more efficient aircraft and switching to cleaner alternatives such as electric aircraft will reduce emissions significantly, this transition will be costly and could take decades to finalize.

Their proposal, on the other hand, can offer benefits immediately and at a fraction of the cost.

Aviation industry's climate change challenge

The study, published in Environmental Research Letters, analyzed approximately 35,000 flights in both directions between New York and London from December 1, 2019, to February 29, 2020.

The researchers compared the fuel used during these flights with the quickest route utilizing the eastward jet stream air currents.

They found that by more efficiently adapting flight paths to tailwinds, airlines could have saved approximately 125 miles (200 kilometers) worth of fuel per flight on average.

This would have added up to a reduction of 14.7 million pounds (6.7 million kilograms) of carbon dioxide emissions during the period analyzed by the researchers.

The aviation industry is currently responsible for around 2.4 percent of all human carbon emissions, and the figure is growing.

As the University of Reading researchers point out, previous Reading research showed that flights will encounter two to three times more severe clear-air turbulence if emissions are not cut. Climate change is a growing concern for the aviation industry and the world at large.

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