Aviation Industry Already Applying 'Green' Solutions

WASHINGTON – Green issues, or environmental concerns including global warning, are among the current hot button issues in the scientific, business, and political circles.

While the aviation industry is a high-profile target for those interested in reducing emissions, the airlines only produce 2 percent of the world's greenhouse gases, or carbon emissions.

On Friday at the FAA Forecast Conference, a panel detailed some initiatives the aviation sector is already undertaking to be a better steward of the environment – and good neighbor. The underlying message to the industry is that being a good environmentalist is also good for business. Most of the efforts to reduce emissions also result on fuel savings and more efficient operations.

As part of the FAA reappropriation measure, dubbed NextGen, the federal regulator is putting a heavy emphasis on "green" business practices and research initiatives. The centerpiece of NextGen is a new air traffic control system that empowers pilots to use state of the art avionics to select the most efficient travel routes and to guide the aircraft into an airport. UPS has been involved in a pilot program using some of its aircraft flying into its Louisville hub since 2004. With the use of avionics that permit a continuous descent approach, each UPS freighter has burned 250 to 465 fewer pounds of fuel, reduced the noise footprint by 30 percent, and reduced nitrous oxide emissions by 34 percent, said Captain Karen Lee, director of flight operations, UPS Airlines. Each pound of fuel saved is three fewer pounds of carbon emissions.

UPS schedules it flights in and out of Louisville with little room to spare. "We put a lot of pressure on the system" to maximize the landing slots each night between 11:30 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. Using standard procedures, Lee said that last 40 miles of the flight can be very inefficient with some routes taking an extra 80 to 90 miles and the planes flying at a slower, nosier air speeds.

In the test, Lee said 125 flights over two weeks landed using an optimum approach selected by the computer. "If you looked up, they looked like beads on a string coming in properly spaced intervals," Lee noted.

UPS and its partners are now waiting on final FAA certification of equipment and procedures in order to fully implement the technology and procedures at Louisville. Lee anticipates that the rollout will begin in August and take a couple of years to fit all its aircraft with the new avionics.

The NextGen legislation also includes several grant programs to assist airports to reduce their impact on the environment, said Lynne Pickard, the FAA's deputy director for environment and energy. There will be a pool of $15 million in the Airport Cooperative Research Program available as grants for research. In another program, the FAA will be seeking up to six airports to participate in an environmental mitigation pilot. The agency will provide 50 percent of the funds.

The FAA will also provide 50-50 matching grants in a program to reduce both emissions and noise in the development of future aircraft engines. Under development for just 18 months, a consortium has tested several alternative aviation fuels, said Rich Altman, executive director, Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuel Initiative. The U.S. Air Force has successfully used a jet fuel alternative in a B-52 that was 100 percent derived from coal.

In the near term, the group will be testing either 100 percent or blends developed from oil shale, ethanol, and biodiesel, Altman said. The long-range goal will be to develop a biomass fuel.

In the research, Altman said they are not only looking for an alternative to jet fuel but also alternative sources for APU, tugs, and other ground equipment.

In the tests so far, he said, the fuels have burned with fewer carbon, sulfur and particulate emissions. Altman said the ultimate goal will be to develop one fuel that can fuel all airport operations: the aircraft, the tugs, the buses and service vehicles.

The groups has already notified the Transportation Research Board that in April it will be publishing a request for proposals seeking two or more substitutes for jet-A kerosene fuel.

Altman added that DARPA has three projects that is it funding with the eye on Richard Branson's Virgin Group $400 million prize to reduce carbon emissions.

As Boeing designed the 787 Dreamliner it had looked beyond just engine noise levels and fuel emissions, said Jeanne Yu, Boeing's director of environmental performance. The 787 does reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent and has a 60 percent smaller noise footprint.

However, the key to the program has been a life cycle of environmental concerns. The company has been trying to minimize the plane's impact during the manufacturing process as well as its flight operations and maintenance requirements.

With an eye on the plane's retirement, Yu has worked with a number of firms to form the Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association. It is working to find a high-end next use of the carbon fiber composites that makes up the bulk of the 787.

In the post-787 generation of aircraft, Yu said that Boeing is working to develop effective fuel cells that can power the bulk of an aircraft's on-board systems so as not to reduce the efficiency of the turbine engine, which now powers the aircraft.