Flying smarter

A team of environmentally active employees

Most air travelers are familiar with the common flight delays that happen as aircraft trying to land are told to stay aloft and circle a busy airport, or as they sit on a runway waiting for clearance to take off into increasingly crowded skies.

Aerospace engineer Monica Alcabin understands those delays don’t just burn time.

“Air traffic controllers follow very detailed procedures to keep airplanes separated correctly and in the proper sequence during takeoff and landing. Anytime an airplane is told to level off and slow down, it burns extra fuel, which means more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and higher costs for the airline,” she says.

Alcabin and a team of avionics engineers evaluate the amount of fuel that can be saved from onboard technology and strategies Boeing has developed to improve the operational efficiency of the global air traffic management system. The challenge and opportunity are substantial.

According to a 2012 Air Transport Action Group report, optimizing onboard and air traffic management technology could reduce annual airline fuel consumption by 9 million tons, with a corresponding reduction of 26 million tons of CO2 emissions. Using EPA data, that’s equivalent to taking 5.4 million average vehicles per year off the road.

To calculate the potential fuel savings, Alcabin and her team, Susan Cheng and Giorgio Calanni-Fraccone, first look at the data from a scheduled commercial flight to see how the aircraft actually flew while mixed with other flights. “Then we ask, ‘What if we could design an optimal flight?’ We’ll map out the new flight and work with propulsion experts to compute how much fuel the aircraft would save,” she says.

What is an “optimal” flight? “It’s the way the aircraft would fly if it were the only one in the sky. It would have an unrestricted climb after takeoff. Then it would fly at the optimal altitude in the most direct path to its destination,” Alcabin says.

“When it’s ready to descend, the airplane would follow an ‘optimized profile descent,’ which would be like gliding into the runway. The aircraft would not have to make numerous turns or level off and waste fuel to fit in with other traffic.”

The benefits from several Boeing-developed flight deck technologies have already been proved, Alcabin says. In the Greener Skies Seattle project, funded partially by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, Boeing demonstrated onboard technology that cut fuel consumption and reduced carbon emissions by up to 35 percent during the descent and landing phases of a flight.

Boeing also has developed GPS-based precision navigation technology that enables aircraft to fly precisely defined routes that reduce miles flown, save fuel and reduce emissions and noise.

Developing the flight deck technology is one step in the process. “You don’t get the benefit just by putting the equipment on an airplane. The improvements come when the airplane avionics work with infrastructure and technology on the ground and new airspace procedures. That’s why it’s crucial that we work with customers, industry groups and regulators around the globe,” Alcabin says.

To that end, Alcabin was one of the authors of an industry guide, “Accelerating Air Traffic Efficiency – A Call to Industry,” jointly published in 2012 by Boeing and the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization. It’s part of an ambitious plan to improve stakeholders’ understanding of the opportunities in improving global air traffic management.