Aviation Goes Green from the Ground on Up

Disappearing coral reefs and melting polar ice caps may not concern every industry, but aviation is going green from ticketing to takeoff by modernizing equipment, reducing fuel consumption and exploring new technologies.

International carriers including British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Lufthansa, Air France and Singapore Airlines are aggressively investing in new aircraft and sustainable technology.

Domestically, carriers have focused on fuel conservation. American Airlines pioneered single-engine taxiing on the runway and using ground power at the gate rather than onboard auxiliary power units. Alaska Airlines developed a satellite-based navigation method to fly with pinpoint accuracy even in inclement weather. Southwest Airlines began the trend to blended winglets — vertical extensions on wings that reduce drag, save fuel and lessen takeoff noise.

Now, most US carriers use electric ground service equipment wherever possible for ground activities from fueling to baggage handling. JetBlue and Southwest both fly newer fuel-efficient planes.

Greener airports are on the horizon with the opening of Indianapolis Airport's new terminal and Chicago O'Hare's new air traffic control tower later this year — good news since many US airports don't even recycle.

The new terminal in Indianapolis merges environmental principles with state of the art technology. The roof structure utilizes a special membrane material to shelter and shade the glass walls from the sun while permitting natural sunlight in via skylights. The roof surface will reflect energy, limit heat gain, and channel rainwater for collection and use in building services.

The O'Hare Modernization Program (OMP) has built-in sustainability from design through implementation. The air traffic control tower will be the first control tower in the US to have a vegetated "green roof." Green roofs reduce storm runoff, keep buildings cooler by reducing the urban heat-island effect and even last longer than regular roofs.

To date, 90 percent of materials from properties demolished for OMP construction have been diverted from landfills resulting in the recycling or salvaging of approximately 30,000 tons of steel, brick, concrete and other materials.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) wants aviation to contribute zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 by utilizing solar, biofuel or other clean energy. IATA spokesman Steve Lott says it's not impossible, and adds that fuel efficiency has improved 70 percent in the last 40 years.

Many environmental experts believe air travel is more climate intensive because emissions occur at high altitude. Also troubling are contrails, the condensation trails created by water vapor from jets. Cirrus clouds formed by contrails may trap atmospheric radiation, increasing global warming, but the full effects remain unknown.

While scientists debate an aircraft's environmental impact, airlines are replacing toxic solvents with more eco-friendly cleaners. KLM and Lufthansa Airlines have each developed greener methods to wash aircraft engines. Japan Airlines is testing an infrared device to melt ice as an aircraft taxis underneath, reducing the amount of de-icing fluid used.

American Airlines has been reclaiming industrial waste water and reducing hazardous waste generated by plane maintenance for more than a decade. Anthony Black, a spokesman for Delta Airlines, said Delta hopes to expand its water reclamation to help Atlanta during its ongoing drought.

Continental's recycling program even includes testing in its ground service equipment alternative fuels such as biofuels refined from its catering division's used cooking oil.

IATA believes aviation can reach zero emissions through four pillars: technology, operations, infrastructure and economic measures.

Technology is focused on developing more fuel-efficient engines, lighter planes and cleaner alternative fuels. Boeing's 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A380 will be lighter, more fuel efficient and 30 percent quieter than the international noise standard. Singapore Airlines and Virgin Atlantic have invested in both. Lufthansa, British Airways and Air France have ordered the Airbus A380. Continental and Northwest Airlines are the only US carriers that have ordered the Boeing 787.

The first commercial jet flight test of a biofuel recently took place when Virgin Atlantic flew a passengerless Boeing 747 from London to Amsterdam using a biofuel derived from a sustainable source — palm oil and coconut oil — that doesn't compete with food or fresh water sources.

Operations include rethinking the way the business operates both as a corporation and a business — reducing emissions and waste created in ground operations and in the air. Airlines are recycling such things as motor oil and retired computers.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates infrastructure improvements — including implementing Single European Sky (SES) and the US NextGen Air Transport System (NextGen) — could reduce aviation CO(-2) emissions by 12 percent. NextGen will replace the antiquated radar-based US Air Traffic Management system with satellite technology, which will enable planes to fly more as the crow flies — point to point to reduce fuel consumption and emissions. But NextGen cannot move forward until Congress passes the FAA 2007 reauthorization bill.

What can passengers do to reduce emissions from their flights?

- Pack lightly; take public transportation to the airport; take the most direct route possible (in Europe passengers combine air and high-speed rail for a more eco-friendly trip); fly airlines with newer, more fuel-efficient planes;

- Consider buying voluntary carbon offsets (you contribute funds toward an offset project to mitigate CO(-2) emissions from your flight). Many airlines and travel agencies now offer carbon offsets.