Study Pinpoints Green Benefits of SatNav Over North Atlantic

 - February 1, 2021, 11:22 AM
An optimized-for-wind route from JFK to Heathrow will result in fuel savings and CO2 reduction of as much as 2.5 percent.

The advent of full satellite-based navigation over the North Atlantic will allow airlines to fly tracks between Europe and North America far more efficiently than those now organized by UK NATS and Nav Canada, resulting in considerable fuel savings and a dramatic reduction in CO2 emissions, according to a new research paper appearing in the scientific journal Environmental Research Letters.

The paper’s lead author, Cathie Wells of the UK's University of Reading, explained to AIN that air navigation service providers organize today’s routes primarily to ensure safe operation and, to a lesser extent, take advantage of winds. Airlines request their preferred tracks in the hours before a flight and the ANSPs create a daily track system that reflects the airlines' wishes as closely as possible.

Wells’s analysis shows how organizing routes optimized for winds and, by extension, the distance flown by aircraft relative to the surrounding air leads to more fuel efficiency and helps airlines meet coming ICAO targets of 2 percent annual reduction in CO2 emissions.

Recent research has centered on limiting energy output, rather than time. Other strands of route optimization have considered turbulence avoidance and balancing the reduction of climate effects with time of flight. Wells’s paper identifies fuel and emissions savings for transatlantic traffic by calculating the excess air distance flown along the current organized track system (OTS) relative to the minimum air distance route and, therefore, focuses solely on CO2 reduction. While other cost considerations come into play when deciding on scheduling and flight paths, Wells submits those will become less important once global authorities institute disincentives to emitting carbon.

“I think the most important thing is going to be that you're going to cut fuel to the minimum and thus cut carbon emissions to the minimum, and I don't think any airlines are going to argue with that,” said Wells. “At the moment they're not being fined for the amounts of carbon they're emitting; there’s a new Corsia [Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation] system that's coming out where they can do carbon offsetting, but it is very likely that it will not be long before pollution fines start to appear. So they're going to be all too happy to save money on both fuel and whatever fines come into being.”

According to the study's findings, the use of wind-optimized tracks would reduce North Atlantic flight times considerably, even compared with today’s most efficient ATM tracks, said Wells.   

The study concludes that using time optimization could result in a 0.7 percent to 16.4 percent reduction in air distance through each daily wind field, depending on flight direction and chosen ATM track. Considering the 3,833,701 seats provided between New York and London in 2019 and the amount of CO2 an economy class return flight between those two cities generates according to ICAO calculations, the use of air-distance-optimized routing results in a 1.7 percent annual reduction in CO2 for westbound flights and a 2.5 percent reduction for passengers flying east. That amounts to a total savings of 6.7 million kg of CO2 over a 91-day period.