Starting in 2004, UPS began systematically saving money on fuel and reducing emissions, in part, by planning their routes and reducing the number of left turns in them. About 15 minutes after the policy was first reported, the first skeptical “Bah!” issued forth. The report was taken to mean that drivers were instructed to make only right turns, which is inaccurate. Routes are planned to reduce the number of left turns (in countries that drive on the right-hand side of the road), thereby reducing the amount of time spent idling in the turning lane. Other interesting measures were put in place, as well; so, the exact dollar amount of savings attributed just to right turns is hard to quantify. Still, the increased efficiency and lower fuel costs are easy to see. And, none of the measures were rocket science, really, just simple, common sense practices used to save money.
NextGen ATC has the potential to act like the route planning software that UPS uses, allowing aircraft to fly more direct routes, thus saving time and fuel while reducing emissions. However, as we’ve previously discussed, that program is stalled while most of the parties who will benefit from it bicker over who will pay for it. In the interim, Alaska Airlines is testing some other programs in their Greener Skies project at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, one reason the Wall Street Journal named the carrier the most fuel efficient in the country.
Using satellite-based guidance technology (Required Navigation Performance or RNP) that they pioneered , the carrier has tested its use in landings. Using the technology with a continuous descent or optimized profile descent (OPD), the aircraft can descend from cruise altitude to runway using a shorter flight path and lower power. What they found by using these principles is that they reduced their landing fuel-burn by about 35%, which translates to about 400 pounds or 60 gallons per event. The carrier estimates that they could save 2.1 million gallons each year by using this system. On 13 August 2010, Jet-A prices ranged from $4.72 per gallon in Smyrna, Tennessee, to $6.98 in Boston. While carriers don’t buy their fuel at those prices, you can still imagine the huge amounts of money that could be saved.
The more direct flight path and lower power do more than result in just lower fuel-burns. Those lower burns translate into lower carbon emissions and lower noise levels. According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Alaska Airlines estimates an emissions reduction of “22,000 metric tons each year, the equivalent of taking 4,100 cars off the road.” And, of course, a more direct route sends aircraft over fewer homes and lower power means less noise for those homes still in the approach path. That’s great news for busy airports’ neighboring communities that are concerned with noise and air pollution levels.
A great many of the aircraft currently flying already have the technology to use these same procedures. ATC has to catch up and redesign the approaches to make the best use of the technology, equipment and procedures. The potential good the aviation industry can realize by the more efficient process is enormous. With decreased costs, the industry can produce a healthier bottom line. And with decreased air and noise pollution, we can all breathe a little deeper and sleep a little more peacefully.