You can buckle your seat belt and know that your flight is on its route to its destination. Waiting for your flight to takeoff is not a pleasant experience. It turns out that the wait can also be very unpleasant for the planet.
Flying in an aircraft is one of the most polluting activities you can do. In 2019, aviation emitted more carbon than shipping and rail, accounting for over 2 percent of all human-generated greenhouse gases. The planet is also being warmed by the emission of nitrogen oxides, soot particles and water vapor from aircraft engines.
NASA estimates that landing and taking off are only a small part of a flight but account for 25% of the aircraft's emissions. Unnecessary stops in the middle of a flight can increase fuel consumption. Everyone would benefit if planes entered and exited airports seamlessly.
This is because plane engines were designed to work in the air, according to Hamsa Balakrishnan (MIT professor of aeronautics, astronautics, and airport operations). Auxiliary power systems are used to maintain the basic functions of aircraft waiting at their gates. Once a plane pulls back, it will start running its engines and burning fuel. Balakrishnan says that idle time at airports can also affect local air quality. People live closer to airports than to the middle of nowhere. Its noisy, too.
NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration have now created a system that smooths takeoffs and landings. This eliminates delays and reduces emissions. The system was developed from NASA's efforts to help spaceships set steady trajectories into orbit.
Today's airports have a queue to allow takeoffs based on the time a plane leaves the gate. This can cause traffic jams and runways that are overloaded with planes waiting to take off. Air traffic controllers don't always know how long it will take for a plane to taxi into the air. Although the FAA has access to each airline's schedule, controllers don't know when a flight will depart until it reaches a particular part of the ramp. This unpredictability is dealt with by adding buffers, extra time here or there to ensure that everything runs smoothly. Balakrishnan, a professor at MIT, said that there is a lot inefficiency.
Inefficiency for passengers means waiting 30 minutes to board an aircraft or being strapped into uncomfortable seats while waiting for the planes to take off. Inefficiency for airlines means burning unnecessary fuel and releasing unnecessary pollutants into the atmosphere.
This software is part of an ongoing two-decade effort by the country to modernize its air traffic control system. It includes 11 bits of real time data from airlines, including when a plane left the gate and when it reached the tarmac. This allows for more precise choreographing of aircraft movements in and out the airport. The information is not difficult or new. The system allows the airlines, airport operators, and air traffic control to share the information in real-time with fewer calls. The system will eventually eliminate the paper progress strips controllers used to manually track flights. Instead, it will create an all-digital system that can remind controllers when a runway is closed.
This system can help you save lots of fuel. The FAA spent four years testing new software with American Airlines at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, North Carolina. It found that reduced taxi times resulted in a reduction of more than 275,000 gallons per year. This is equivalent to 185 flights on a Boeing 737 between New York City and Chicago. Carbon emissions decreased by more than 2,900 tons per year, which is roughly the same as 15 coal-burning railcars. The project cut down on delays for passengers by nearly 40 minutes per day. The airport's aviation director Haley Gentry says that Charlotte airport is one of the busiest in the world. This includes commercial, cargo and private flights. We maximize the use of the pavement we have.
The FAA plans to release the new software to 27 major airports across the country, including San Francisco, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas and New York. This will be done starting in 2022. The agency could need to take 10 years before reaching all 27.
Pam Whitley, assistant administrator of the FAA's modernization program, said that the changes may feel small for a single passenger. She expects that there will be fewer inconveniences. She says that the experience of arriving at the gate to find the planes not there and not knowing when it will show up, is not something the passenger will have to experience.
This story first appeared on wired.com