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Driving Change

The low-hanging fruit of reducing aircraft fuel consumption?

How telecommunications can impact the environmental and economical sustainability of aviation.

Two pilots in a cockpit

The more accurate information a pilot has about what's going to happen during the flight, the less discretionary fuel they're going to take. Image courtesy of SITA

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Another day, another headline proclaiming a new record high for fuel prices — adding to the litany of reasons to reduce consumption.

As an EV driver, I’ve avoided feeling the pinch at the pump. However, when booking a flight, it’s hard to miss that the cost of airfare is also swiftly rising for similar reasons. While more companies are signing agreements for the production and usage of sustainable aviation fuels (a huge step in reducing both emissions and foreign oil dependency), the fruits of these agreements are still years away from being seen.

What then are some sustainable technologies available today that airlines can use to both reduce emissions and potentially shield air travelers from rising oil prices? To answer this, I spoke with Yann Cabaret, vice president of strategy, product and marketing at SITA. 

First, a bit of background: SITA is the leading IT provider for the air transport industry. According to Cabaret, following World War II, people realized the world needed a communication system for folks on the ground to be able to talk to aircrafts in the sky. So in February 1949, 11 airlines (10 European, one American) joined together to combine their burgeoning communications networks into the world’s largest data network of its time. Today, SITA has more than 400 members including airlines, airports, airport-based organizations and air traffic management providers; it serves more than 200 countries and territories. 

What do telecommunications have to do with the environmental and economical sustainability of aviation? Cabaret says it all comes down to how SITA provides airlines with the right tools to operate aircrafts in an efficient manner. He elaborated on this by saying, "Efficiency for the airline ultimately means efficiency for the planet because it's about time, it's about people and it's about emissions — and a lot of what we do today actually relates to reduction of emissions."

Cabaret went on to explain that SITA equips pilots with a portfolio of applications for use before and during flight that provide detailed weather information and offer adjustments for optimizing flight trajectories. Pilots are provided what is called "4D weather information," which basically means the weather predicted at the time the plane flies into that zone. It sounds a bit unrelated to emissions, but ultimately, this information allows pilots to choose the optimal route to navigate around potential weather hazards. By providing accurate information, less fuel is used and, in turn, pilots use less of what is called contingency (or discretionary) fuel. Before a flight, a pilot decides how much fuel to take onboard. The more accurate information they have about what will happen during the flight, the less discretionary fuel they'll to take. Taking on less fuel also reduces the weight of the aircraft, decreasing the emissions produced even further. 

These aren’t hypothetical savings, either — SITA is able to show data about how much fuel is saved on average for every takeoff, every climb and every descent. It is estimated that a full 10 percent of emissions of a flight can be saved by using SITA’s applications.

Improving aircraft efficiency in the future will be about much more than just providing individual pilots with customized flight information — it will come from thinking of the entire airspace as a complete system. Cabaret says that "the big next step" will be to optimize air traffic management and airspace use — essentially, orchestrating all flight paths from gate-to-gate in perfectly coordinated movement. But to get to that point will take many years, a whole lot of data and help from machine learning. 

So will these efficiency improvements save me money on my flight to Hawaii this week? Maybe, maybe not, as fuel prices are only a small piece of the cost of my ticket. But, I do feel better knowing there’s likely less fuel going into my plane and less emissions from it. I also feel better flying knowing that SITA is working on making the entire process of air travel a lot more sustainable, including finding solutions for airports to achieve net zero.

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