U.S.-European plan seeks to cut emissions of trans-Atlantic flights

June 19, 2007
Agreement announced at Paris Air Show

Jun. 19--PARIS -- Airplane makers, airline companies and aviation officials want to make the wild blue yonder a little greener.

Monday at the Paris Air Show, the Federal Aviation Administration and the European Commission announced a plan to cut the emissions of commercial jets flying across the Atlantic Ocean.

Although the program might be good news for the environment, it could also be a welcome development for passengers.

That's because the new Atlantic Interoperability Initiative to Reduce Emissions, or AIRE, will focus initially on making air traffic control much more efficient on both sides of the pond.

That means less time spent taxiing on a runway waiting to take off and less time spent circling an airport waiting to land.

And the first batch of upgrades shouldn't take long to put in place, said Marion Blakey, administrator of the FAA.

"AIRE will capitalize on known, existing technologies and best practices," she said.

Joseph Kolshak, vice president of operations at Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc., said during the news conference that when Delta tested a similar makeover at air traffic control at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the busiest in the world, the benefits to passengers were clear.

He said the company cut the average delay time of every flight by three minutes.

All those minutes added together gave Delta the option of launching an additional three flights per day.

"Reducing delays also means that our passengers are getting to their destination sooner, the aircraft is burning less fuel, which obviously saves money and reduces greenhouse gas emissions," he said. "It also increases departure rates, which relieves congestion."

Laura Brown, a spokeswoman for the FAA, said American Airlines is not yet part of the formal AIRE group. But, she said, the carrier has been working with the FAA on many of the same improvements on its domestic flights and could eventually join AIRE.

"They certainly have really been a part of what we're doing in Dallas/Fort Worth," she said.

Aviation analyst Scott Hamilton said the push for greater fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas reductions might be great news for the environment and for passengers.

But that's not why the movers and shakers of the aerospace world were gathered in a hot, stuffy room in Paris in June, he said.

"I don't for a moment think that the airlines or even the manufacturers are doing this out of the altruistic global warming scenario," Mr. Hamilton said.

"It's a way to avoid further costs to the airlines, which in some form or another wind up hurting the manufacturers."

European taxes on polluting airliners and growing jet fuel bills were the real motivators, he said.

Nor does Mr. Hamilton think passengers will ultimately care much about the environmental benefits of the new initiative.

But they will appreciate getting to their destinations faster.

"There's certainly no question about it," he said. "But I doubt that a passenger who is sitting on the tarmac at D/FW who is waiting for the air traffic control to clear the runway in New York is saying, 'If only we had an efficient environmental policy.' "

Even so, the presenters in Paris insisted the new AIRE program is the best way to quickly shrink the environmental footprint of the aviation industry.

Scott Carson, president and chief executive of Boeing Co.'s commercial planes division, called more efficient air traffic control "the lowest-hanging fruit that can make a huge difference that doesn't require us to spend a decade developing new technology."

Boeing's chief competitor, Airbus, is also one of the initial partners in the AIRE program.

Not long before the news conference, Airbus' mammoth double-decker jet, the A380, flew over the tens of thousands of attendees at the show, executing remarkably sharp banks and climbs for a plane that looks like a whale with wings.

Fabrice Bregier, Airbus' chief operating officer, said that despite its size, the 525-seat plane is no polluter.

"The A380 is the most environmentally friendly aircraft in the skies today, as fuel-efficient as the average European midsize car," he said, terming the plane a "gentle green giant."

Still, the screech and roar of fighter jets frequently drowned out the speeches, and the display of conspicuous consumption just outside of a presentation about conservation wasn't lost on at least one presenter.

A fighter plane screamed past just as Mr. Kolshak of Delta was talking about fuel-efficient planes in Atlanta.

"That's not one of them," he said.

The extravagance of the show notwithstanding, Mr. Carson and Ms. Blakey noted that the airline industry generates less than 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

But both said the initiative is important.

"Aviation does indeed need to make a statement on environmental progress, and AIRE will do it," Ms. Blakey said.

The new AIRE program was announced to a standing-room-only crowd at the air show, and there were more than a few digs at America's perceived lack of interest in environmental affairs.

"We have a lot to discuss with our American friends," Jacques Barrot, vice president for transport at the European Commission, said with a smile.

But the event was largely a salute to global cooperation, and the speakers were confident that international trials of the new air traffic control procedures could begin as early as this year.

Devising the most efficient trans-Atlantic flight paths and using steady, gradual descents to the runway are also part of the plan.

Ms. Blakey said Atlanta and Miami would probably be the first airports in the U.S. to participate.

Miami and Atlanta were selected because they handle so much traffic from Europe but without the airspace congestion of other East Coast cities, Ms. Brown of the FAA said.

The reason East Coast airports are among the first batch is because planes flying in over the Atlantic aren't visible on ground radar for much of the flight, so there isn't much time between when they pop up on radar and when they're ready to land, she said.

As a result, air traffic control often isn't able to assign very efficient -- and therefore environmentally friendly -- landing trajectories.

But one of the goals of AIRE is to improve those landing paths, Ms. Brown said, and the greatest efficiency gains to be had are at those coastal facilities.

While the AIRE announcement focused on commercial aviation -- initial partners on the program include Delta, FedEx, United Parcel Service and Air France -- military plane builders at the show said fuel efficiency and environmental improvement are also becoming part of their business plans.

Mr. Hamilton, the analyst, said that the Defense Department probably doesn't worry too much about greenhouse gas emissions, but it does care about jet fuel costs.

"The U.S. Air Force has been looking at biofuels as well, although I think in that case it's a supply and dependency thing on foreign oil," he said.

During a tour of the new C-130J military cargo plane built by Fort Worth-based Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co., vice president Jim Grant noted that when the new J-series of planes was under development, the 15 percent improvement in fuel efficiency over the original C-130 probably wasn't that big a deal for the Pentagon.

Now, thanks to much higher fuel prices, "it's very important," he said. "Our engines are considerably more efficient than the legacy machines."

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