Better planes, cleaner skies

Charlie Burr

[Disclosure: A month and a half after writing this post I accepted a position with Edelman, the world's largest independent public relations firm. Edelman represents Boeing, although I do not personally work on this account.]

As American auto manufacturers suffer historic losses in part due to their failure to invest in more fuel-efficient vehicles, the opposite appears to be happening in our domestic aerospace industry.

As a result of strategic investment in lightweight, spacious and fuel-efficient planes, Boeing is poised to pass Airbus in new orders this year for the first time since 2000. It's a pretty remarkable turnaround. To date, Boeing has 435 firm orders for the fuel-efficient Dreamliner 787s, making it the most successful airplane launch in the history of the industry, according to the company.

The Dreamliner 787's carbon and titanium wide-body plane offers an open architecture and more efficient engines that improve the long-term operational costs of the plane.

The less efficient Airbus planes put Boeing's competitor at a disadvantage. From Forbes:

Airbus unveiled its A350 plan in 2005, but was forced to redesign the plane earlier this year after complaints from prospective clients, who wanted more seating capacity and better fuel efficiency.

Notably, industry leader FedEx was among those canceling previous orders and instead opting for more efficient Boeing models. Just this week, Luftansa announced the purchase of twenty more airplanes with the fuel-efficient engines of Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner. The 747-8 will cost 9 percent less to operate than the 747-400.

But enough about Boeing.

Experts project global air travel to continue significant growth for the foreseeable future. Fuel consumption by civil aviation is expected to reach 300 million tons in 2015 and 450 million tons in 2050, compared to 130 million tons in 1992. Corresponding high emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and water vapor as well as nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides will contribute significantly to our climate crisis. In short, efforts to build better and cleaner planes will play an important role in our long-term efforts to fight global warming.

Some long-term projects to build more efficient planes, such as the MIT/Cambridge SAI (Silent Aircraft Initiative, pictured above), are pretty ambitious:

While originally conceived to make a huge reduction in airplane noise, the team's ultimate design also has the potential to be more fuel-efficient. In a typical flight, the proposed plane, which is designed to carry 215 passengers, is predicted to achieve 124 passenger-miles per gallon, almost 25 percent more than current aircraft, according to Greitzer. (For a down-to-earth comparison, the Toyota Prius hybrid car carrying two passengers achieves 120 passenger-miles per gallon.)

Speaking of hybrids, the Vermont California firm AeroVironment successfully tested an unmanned, lightweight fuel-cell hybrid survellance plane last year. While this technology may be years (or more likely decades) away from widespread passenger use, this represents the type of innovation and aggressive energy efficiency we'll hopefully see more of in the future.

But not all improvements in energy and fuel efficiency require the techno whiz-bang advances of the distant future.

In addition to Richard Branson's commitment to invest $3.0 billion over the next decade in renewable energy projects, Branson's Virgin Atlantic is looking at ways to cut fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions right now through pretty low-tech, high-impact means.

By towing its Boeing 747-400 aircraft to take-off areas at London airports during December it said it could save up to two tonnes of fuel per flight. Aircraft will be towed to Heathrow and Gatwick runways to cut fuel burning. Virgin said a reduction of 120,000 tonnes in carbon emissions a year could be made if extended across its fleet.

Branson may also convert Virgin's fleet to biofuel, again illustrating that the days of the Concorde -- the SUV of the sky -- have long since past.

So, what can those of us who don't own an airline or design airplanes for a living do to reduce our carbon footprint when traveling?

Americans aren't likely to stop flying anytime soon, but one important step anyone can take is to simply modify your family's vacation and travel patterns when possible. Not by refraining from flying, but by making an effort to spend a longer amount of time in one destination, rather than visiting a different city or country every few days while on vacation. It can make for not only more environmentally sound travel, but also better quality and more interesting trips.

Travelers can also mitigate greenhouse gas emissions though carbon offsetting, like the Green Tags program. These offsets fund projects that reduce fossil fuel use or eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, and would be highly unlikely to be funded without these investments. Local "green" car and travel club Better World Club offers offsets as well, so bonus points for supporting this local business.

Maybe we can have a true Clear Skies Initiative yet!

  • RayCeeYa (unverified)

    No matter how much we try air-travel will never be as efficient as rail. One of the greatest crimes in this country's history was the elimination of rail travel. Now that we are starting to feel the pinch from high gas prices the only solution being offered is bigger and bigger jetliners.

  • anon (unverified)

    Go back to Memphis, hippie!

  • Jack Saporito (unverified)

    You make valid points; however, many reports including IPCC and the US General Accounting Office show that technology alone will not help aviation; flight reduction is the only answer.

    Even if we had this miracle fix today, it would be decades before it would cycle throughout the world fleet but according to many experts, we don't have decades.

    Massive growth is the problem: According to the USDOT, flights are expected to triple by about 2015; accordingly, FAA/ NASA internal docs state that flights will double every 8-10 years thereafter, if left unchecked. This is caused by the manufactured growth of the industry, not actual demand (i.e., economic globalization treaties of 2008, jet taxis, VLJ, etc.).

    One of the biggest "slight-of-hands" going, is that the US federal government is fully aware that jets are most likely the major cause of the massive acceleration of warming that we have experienced since the 1950s; that was proven by Dr. Travis' 9-11 study. A Google search will bear this out; look for the technology it is trying to develop.

    (The University of Wisconsin study showed that in just three days in 2001, temperatures went back to pre-1950s in the US).

    One of the major problems for aviation is trying to balance climate warming technology with that of public health technology; the two are at opposite polls with no fix in the foreseeable future.

    Airports are mini-cities when it comes to amounts and types of pollution emissions. Airports' related operations cause significant public health problems to perhaps more than 70% of the nation's population. (see: ).

    There are answers to these problems; high-speed rail could reduce flights in the US by about 50% (but it doesn't put money in the right people's pockets).

    <h2>We have one of the worst transportation systems in the industrialized nations (many decades behind); when I think aviation, I do not think sustainability.</h2>

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