Small changes could bring big environment benefits to airlines

Airlines could reduce their climate impact by up to 10 per cent by making small changes to some of their flight routes, according to a team of European researchers.

The study shows that airlines could make a large positive impact on climate change by altering flight routes to avoid areas where emissions have the largest impact. The changes would be comparatively small – resulting in only around a 1 per cent increase in operating costs.

Said Professor Keith Shine from University of Reading: “Climate-friendly routing of aircraft has an exciting potential to decrease the climate impact of aviation, without the need for costly redesign of aircraft, their engines, and airports.

“With more targeted research, it could become a reality in the next 10 years.”

Around 5 per cent of human-induced climate change is caused by global aviation, and this number is expected to rise. But unlike other sectors, aviation’s climate impact is largely caused by non-CO2 effects such as contrails and ozone formation.

“These non-CO2 effects vary regionally, and, by taking advantage of that, a reduction of aviation’s climate impact is feasible.,” said lead author Professor Volker Grewe from the Delft University of Technology.

Using calculations of emissions, climate change functions, and air traffic simulations, the research team evaluated 85 alternative routes for each of the roughly 400 flights crossing the North Atlantic in either direction each day.

The study showed that, in all-weather situations, routes could be found that reduced the climate impact at low costs, though the intensity in climate impact reduction varied.

But costs could prove to be a hurdle in implementing these measures. Although the cost increases are very low, an airline’s return on investment is also low.

“However, with a market-based measure in place, which includes also these non-CO2 effects, costs for climate-optimised routing could be traded with costs for equivalent CO2 emissions,” said Grewe.

The implications on air traffic management also have to be identified before climate-friendly routing becomes a reality. While safety issues do not limit the results for the North American flight corridor, “they might limit the applicability in areas of higher air traffic densities,” explained Grewe.


Image credit: Simon Huggins, flickr/Creative Commons

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