• Planes could use new satellite coverage to tweak their routes and save fuel.
  • Riding the wind saves fuel because it increases flight speed without requiring more power.
  • The average fuel saving in this paper was about 2 percent, with individual flights as high as 16.4 percent.

Scientists say even tiny changes to airplane routes could save millions of kilograms of fuel each year, using up to 16 percent less fuel in the process. The secret is to empower individual flights to shift into the jet stream. This can be accomplished using technology we already have.

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In a new study, which appears in Environmental Research Letters, scientists from the U.K. analyzed 35,000 flights going both ways between London and New York. The scientists assembled a computer model that crunches the numbers in a simplified form in order to estimate total fuel savings based on small route changes.

If all the airlines got on board, the researchers say, it wouldn’t be difficult to make the changes and then use satellite and radar tracking to keep all the flights safe on their slightly changed routes.

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How do the flight path changes work? Well, the idea of cruising the jet stream is an old one, and flights regularly set new records for speed when they fly with especially strong backwinds, for example. The key in this study is that pilots should soon have the right tools in hand to safely move out of their prescribed route and into the wind:

“After decades of limited situational awareness for aircraft flying in the mid-North Atlantic, full satellite coverage will soon be available.”

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The scientists crunched real flight data from December 2019 through February 2020 and compared it with recorded “wind field” data. The results: Conditions like strong backwinds could cut flight time, and therefore fuel usage, by an average of 1.7 percent one way and 2.5 percent the other way. The maximum was 7.8 percent fuel saved in one direction and 16.4 percent in the other.

While satellite coverage represents a kind of technology, the researcher say, it’s far less involved to make these route changes than some other fuel-reduction technology ideas in the works. Satellites affect airplanes almost passively: Pilots already have and use satellite data, and they’d just be using a more robust satellite infrastructure to make better choices.

“With aircraft able to transmit and receive accurate information continuously, it is now possible to consider the implementation of [fuel-optimized] routes,” the researchers explain.

flight paths
Figure A: All westbound tracks between LHR and JFK on December 3, 2019. The Great Circle path (GC Path), the shortest distance along the ground between the airports, is shown in white. The six tracks are labeled from A to F and lie predominantly North of the GC path to avoid the prevailing jet stream air currents. Figure B: All eastbound tracks between JFK and LHR on December 3, 2019. The GC path is again shown in white. The 10 tracks are labelled from Q to Z and lie both sides of the GC path.
IBCAO/Landsat/Copernicus/Environmental Research Letters

While other emissions reduction ideas have relied on making changes to airplanes themselves or even engines, this simple idea uses only the amount of time passed. That means the cost to implement this change is lower. It also means varying flight paths could be combined with other technologies to make flights that use even less fuel.

All of this is made possible by a system of low-Earth satellites put into orbit by a company called Aireon. Together, the satellites will knit a more complete grid over the entire possible area of flight paths.

It’s this complete awareness of other planes that will allow pilots to move into and out of the wind safely. And riding the right gusts each day could help planes stay leaner and meaner in the carbon neutral near future.


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