Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Challenges of Next Gen and Airplane Emissions

Cruise pollutants?
There's good news and there's bad news in Flying Lessons today. First the bad news. The very smart folks over at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have just released the results of a study that seems to suggest that unregulated airliner pollutants cause as many as eight thousand cardiovascular, respiratory and cancer deaths each year.

Examining how airplane emissions travel through the jet stream, Steven Barrett, a professor at MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics discovered that nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides in jet emissions are responsible for these deaths and that the impact of the pollution is not only not restricted to the countries where airliner traffic is heaviest, countries with low levels of airliner activity are disproportionately affected.

The study, funded by British transportation agencies and some assistance from the U.S. Department of Transportation and published in the science journal, Environmental Science and Technology (read the report here) claims India and China which contribute just 10% of the aviation fuel burned worldwide, experience about half of the related deaths. These countries are particularly affected because of the interaction of the aviation-pollutants with the ammonia generated by agriculture in those countries. 

At present, regulation of airplane emissions focuses only on jet fuel emissions generated at takeoff and landing. As a result of his study Barrett says governments should consider the health effects of cruise-level flights as well.

Airplane emissions are the hot topic at the International Civil Aviation Organization 37th Assembly going on in Montreal. Folks there are doing their share to heat up the atmosphere by arguing over aviation emissions trading scenarios. Read Aviation Week’s take on it and fill me in if you understand it, okay?

Bradley International Airport
My story in The New York Times last month about an American Airlines airliner using the first commercially-produced, publicly available RNP (GPS guided) approach at Bradley International Airport, was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. After all the hoopla - television crews recorded the B737's departure from Dallas Fort Worth International Airport and newspaper photographers greeted the flight in Hartford - Capt. Brian Will was unable to actually land using the approach. Blame tail winds, Capt.Will said.

But last minute surprises from Mother Nature aside, there's something truly spectacular about the digitization of air navigation. Somebody stop me, I think I've drunk the Kool-aid!  

Re-reading the transcript of my interview that day with Steve Fulton, the Alaska Airlines pilot-turned-daddy of RNP, I am once again struck by the potential in this technology. Here's a list of some of the benefits we can expect in the next decade as more airlines make the investment and equip their planes to fly more precise routes. 

Fuel savings (estimated at 6% by Southwest Airlines in a 2009 article for the Times, read it here)
Shorter flight times  
Fewer ground delays
Reduced air traffic control workload 
Diminished ground noise 
Safer transit through challenging terrain  

Acting on the assumption that gear-heads and techno-philes, may find it fascinating to read how Steve Fulton turned the solution to a troublesome approach route in Juneau, Alaska to create a global revolution in aviation, I've uploaded the entire transcript from our conversation last month in Hartford. Click here to see a video prepared by Naverus.


Christopher said...

Having written, with some enthusiasm, an article myself on the American Airlines RNP flight, I am suprised (cheated?) now to learn from your piece that the procedure didn't actually take place. I didn't catch that in the press release! Oh well. Having interviewed Steve Fulton myself at Farnborough this summer, he does at least come over as one of the good guys in the industry and doing some great work.

Christine Negroni said...

Christopher, sorry that you were disappointed, I did mention this in my story in The New York Times the following day.

You're right, though, this development in air navigation is exciting for what it can do to reduce airplane emissions and noise. Overall a very good thing.

Thanks for your comments.