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Captain Brian Holm is in the flight deck flipping through flight paperwork when he spots an issue all airlines face.
Boeing/ Eric Olson
"It's quite common for the winds to change," said the veteran pilot. "By the time we actually get to the descent point, the wind information forecast we're using could be 6 to 8 hours old, or potentially even older than that."
Wind can be big factor when a commercial jetliner prepares to land. It affects where the pilots set the descent point, which path they take, and how much fuel the airplane will use. With an outdated forecast - flight paperwork is usually printed several hours before departure - pilots might use more thrust then necessary, wasting fuel.
A new service called Wind Updates from Boeing Flight Services has solved the problem by delivering real-time information to the flight deck.
Boeing projects "Wind Updates" will save airlines up to 200 pounds of fuel per descent for a single-aisle airplane and as much as 300 pounds for a twin-aisle jet.
Boeing/ Eric Olson
Recently, Capt. Holm demonstrated how the service works while flying a simulated flight in a Boeing Next-Generation 737 simulator.
At the start of the flight to Seattle, the forecast predicted a strong headwind on arrival. But on the ground, the winds changed. So Boeing's computers, which constantly track the latest conditions, start devising a customized update for the flight.
"It will smartly select from that forecast what's the most optimal input of altitudes, of wind speeds, directions and temperatures, to make the rest of the flight the most optimized," explained Mike Lewis, director of Boeing Flight Services.
"An airline that starts using wind updates today is saving dollars tomorrow. Anytime there's enough fuel savings, we'll send a message to the airplane." Mike Lewis, Boeing Flight Services
The computer sends the advisory to Capt. Holm in the flight deck via the data link system. Within seconds, a much lower head wind flashes across the screen.
With the push of a button, Capt. Holm accepts the update and the flight management computer automatically adjusts to the lighter headwind so the airplane begins the descent sooner, burning less fuel.
Results from operational trials have been encouraging. Boeing projects airlines will save up to 200 pounds of fuel per descent for a single-aisle airplane and as much as 300 pounds for a twin-aisle jet. Multiply that across an entire fleet and the result is significant savings.
"The more we can do to conserve fuel, the better it is for everyone, both for us and the environment," said Capt. Holm. "Especially now with the rising cost of fuel prices, it's an economic impact to us and it's also an environmental impact."
"The more we can do to conserve fuel, the better it is for everyone, both for us and the environment." Capt. Brian Holm, Alaska Airlines
The subscription-based service is available for Boeing, Airbus and other major jetliners and uses existing equipment, which means minimal upfront cost.
"An airline that starts using wind updates today is saving dollars tomorrow," says Lewis. "Anytime there are enough fuel savings to make it worthwhile, we'll send a message to the airplane."
Capt. Holm says aside from the fuel savings it also makes his job easier.
"The more accurate information I have, the better I can program the flight management systems and the better the job those systems do of flying and helping me fly more precisely."