The Environmental Impact of Aviation
The issue of climate change and the importance of sustainability initiatives has been at the forefront of people’s minds for the past decade. How can we minimize our carbon footprint? What alternatives can we use for fossil fuels? And, ultimately, who is responsible for leading the change?
Sustainability is important to every industry, but those that have the most significant impact bear the greatest burden of responsibility. Since air transport contributes to 4.9% of human-caused climate change,1 we want to be a leading industry for change.
In light of what is going on in the industry, do not dismiss our ability to reduce our carbon footprint because aviation is such a fundamentally high carbon-producing exercise. We must fight this mindset. What’s good for the environment is ultimately good for our shareholders as well.
In a normal year, 9 billion passengers are flown around the globe and, pre-COVID-19, that number was projected to only increase.2 Our industry contributes to climate change in three main ways. First, through terrestrial sources such as airports, air conditioning facilities, and the like. Second, through fuel burn and the emission of greenhouse gases. In 2018, air transport alone generated 895 million tons of carbon dioxide.3 Third, through the use of chemicals, oils, additives, and lubricants we use for functions such as deicing, which can be problematic for the environment.
Over the past few years, our industry has taken steps to improve our environmental impact in the next 30 years. Starting in 2016, 191 nations signed a UN accord agreeing to reduce aviation-related carbon emissions by 50% by 2050.4 In 2019, IATA committed to carbon neutral airline growth starting this year, as well as a 50% reduction in CO² emissions by 2050.5 Airlines, such as JetBlue and United, have begun working with biofuels and many airlines have promised to offset CO² emissions by investing in environmental organizations and sustainability projects.6
A 50% reduction in carbon is a significant change, so how can it be achieved?
Fuel burn is our industry’s greatest contributor to climate change, and improved efficiency should be a priority for all of your sustainability initiatives. Not only does fuel inefficiency damage the environment, but also it’s bad for business. The relative stability of low fuel prices in the last decade has created a false sense of security. During this pandemic, however, we are relearning past lessons – every dollar counts.
The last decade may have lessened our recall of a fuel crisis event, but make no mistake, it will happen again. Fuel efficiency is crucial for the following reasons:
- There is no viable alternative for jet fuel in moving aircraft today.
- At any given time, fuel is a top three expense for airlines. It typically accounts for 15 – 20% of operating costs.7
- Anytime something that cannot be controlled in the short-run makes up a large portion of your expense portfolio, you need to minimize it.
- You lose $25.26 in fuel per minute, per airplane, during flight delays.8
- Profitability has and will again be wiped out in any given year by uncontrolled increases in the cost of jet aviation.
The Tactical and Structural Approach
On the ground, we see a lot of waste in terms of planes landing before gates are available, misallocation of ground crews, inefficient use of Auxiliary Power Units (APUs), and long gate holds. In the air, waste is sometimes caused by limited visibility of operations status and a lack of decision support tools.
Our NAS has remained largely unchanged since 1985 when it was put in place following the air traffic controller strike of 1981. Air traffic controllers today are focused solely on maintaining safety. They are not trained to save fuel, nor should they be. The controller is focused on their own airspace and they only have a limited idea of what happens to the airplanes before they enter or after they leave their sector. Because of this, route optimization has been limited to primarily long-haul flights driven by jet-stream location and hazardous weather avoidance. We often lack information on which planes should be rerouted first, second, or third for optimization, so it’s left up to the controller’s best guess. If you asked 12 controllers what they would do, all 12 might give you a different answer. The optimization and efficiency of the route of flight must be the responsibility of the airline pilot and dispatcher without creating situations that will negatively impact the controller’s mission of aircraft separation.
We may approach the improvement of ground and en route operations through tactical solutions. Ground efficiencies are possible through taxi management, tow management, engine management (i.e. single-engine taxi), departure sequencing, and reduced usage of APUs. When used correctly, these tactics can reduce fuel burn thereby reducing your emissions. Additionally, during the tow process, switching to electronic equipment instead of combustion engines can save you a ton of money.
We may also find efficiencies via longer-term, structural approaches. It would be impossible to achieve a 50% reduction in carbon emissions if you relied solely on the deployment of tactical solutions. You need a truly collaborative process where you have a common situational awareness and a structure that allows for full visibility to meet all individual goals. Too often, we see individual airlines or airports coming up with a great new solution to make their operations more sustainable only to see it fail because they didn’t account for the impact it would have on others. Changing operations at one airport can impact on-time departures for an airport as far as 300 or 450 miles away. So, rather than fixing the problem, when you attack one part of it on your own, you shift it from one location to the next.
Airlines will improve fuel efficiency and sustainability when they understand there is only a finite amount of real estate at an airport to move airplanes in and out of. We must have the leadership of all policy stakeholders with collaboration, common visibility, and integrated decision-making. When operations are sub-optimal, everyone loses.
Steps to Becoming More Sustainable:
- Increase your visibility so you can see not only your operations but also a comprehensive view of the traffic situation and relevant constraints such as weather
- Have the technology required to collaborate between all stakeholders (airlines, general aviation, military operations, airports, and ANSPs)
- Use integrated decision making among key stakeholders for route optimization and IROPS recovery
- Invest in artificial intelligence and machine learning programs to assist stakeholders in their daily operations
About the Author:
My name is Bill Cranor and I am the Vice President of Customer Operational Advocacy at PASSUR Aerospace. I have 30 years of airline operations experience in dispatch, airspace design, traffic flow management, meteorology, and surface management. Prior to PASSUR, I worked with airlines such as United Airlines, JetBlue, Continental, and US Airways, as well as the International Air Transport Association.
1 Abdalla, N. (2018, August 29). What effect is global aviation having on the environment? Retrieved from https://phys.org/news/2018-08-effect-global-aviation-environment.html
2 Abdalla, What effect is global aviation having on the environment?
3 Geneva-based Air Transport Action Group. (n.d.). Aviation’s impact on the environment. Retrieved from https://aviationbenefits.org/environmental-efficiency/aviations-impact-on-the-environment/
4 Abdalla, What effect is global aviation having on the environment?
5 Leff, G. (2019, August 28). American Airlines CEO: ‘We’re Doing Better Things For the Environment’ Than United. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/garyleff/2019/08/27/american-airlines-ceo-were-doing-better-things-for-the-environment-than-united/#78570e666472
6 Baran, M. (2020, January 08). How Airlines Are Working to Reduce Their Carbon Footprint. Retrieved from https://www.afar.com/magazine/how-airlines-are-working-to-reduce-their-carbon-footprint
7 U.S. Department of Transportation. (n.d.). What the Cost of Airline Fuel Means to You. Retrieved from https://www.transportation.gov/administrations/assistant-secretary-research-and-technology/what-cost-airline-fuel-means-you
8 Airlines for America. (n.d.). U.S. Passenger Carrier Delay Costs. Retrieved from https://www.airlines.org/dataset/per-minute-cost-of-delays-to-u-s-airlines/#