x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Crowded skies spur an uplift in flight efficiency

Air traffic across the Middle East is already congested – and will only become even more busy. So it is vital the region's airlines minimise emissions and fuel burn.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation predicts Middle East traffic will grow at 5.2 per cent per year through to 2030. Stephen Lock / The National
The International Civil Aviation Organisation predicts Middle East traffic will grow at 5.2 per cent per year through to 2030. Stephen Lock / The National

The Middle East is not only home to some of the world's leading airlines, such as Etihad Airways and Emirates Airline, it also has one of the busiest skies.

As its fast-growing airlines nurture global ambitions and invest in expanding their fleets, the sky above the region has never been more crowded.

With the International Civil Aviation Organisationpredicting Middle East traffic will grow at an annual rate of 5.2 per cent through to 2030 and Boeing's current market outlook forecasting demand for an additional 2,370 aircraft in the region by 2031 it will be critically important to address the challenges that will invariably arise.

One significant hurdle is the fact that air traffic management (ATM) systems around the world have struggled to keep pace with the extraordinary growth in air traffic. Consequently, we see airlines struggling to deal with congestion, which has a direct impact on the industry's environmental footprint and on profitability.

Let us look at the numbers: according to the International Air Transport Association (Iata) every minute of wasted flying time accounts for 62 litres of fuel consumption and 160kg of carbon dioxide emissions. Iata estimates that has led to 73 million tonnes of avoidable carbon dioxide emissions and nearly US$13.5 billion (Dh49.58bn) in wasted costs.

However, innovative solutions are being adopted in a concerted effort to address the challenges that stem from outdated and inefficient ATM systems.

At a macro level, collaborative decision-making (CDM) tools are being advocated as a long-term response to inefficiencies caused by the absence of a cohesive, multi-country approach to ATM. By deploying CDM tools, airports, airlines and other stakeholders will have shared access to data, leading to improved airspace management.

The industry is also taking a fresh look at the routing system, which in most instances allows airlines to fly fixed routes from origin to destination, with little to no flexibility offered to compensate for changing conditions such as weather.

These systems date back to the early days of aviation when aircraft did not possess the navigational capabilities they do today and air traffic services faced challenges in terms of flight management and communication. Additionally, demarcation of airspace for military and civilian use has traditionally been non-negotiable as national security takes obvious precedence over airline operations.

However, while the technologies have evolved and some militaries have become more flexible about sharing airspace with civilian aircraft, the route systems have largely remained unchanged - to the disadvantage of the industry.

An aircraft flying from Abu Dhabi to New York will, in most instances, have to follow a pre-determined route regardless of wind or weather conditions. If the plane's pilots are allowed to make course corrections en route to benefit from changing high-altitude jet stream wind conditions, this will have a positive influence on fuel burn, improving operating efficiencies and reducing carbon emissions in the process. Early studies revealed flexible routing could cut flight times by an average of six minutes, reduce fuel burn by 2 per cent and save 3,000kg of carbon dioxide emissions on a 10-hour intercontinental flight.

This system of optimising flight operations is offered by Airservices Australia and the Indian Ocean Strategic Partnership to Reduce Emissions, both of which count Emirates as a partner, and the results have been remarkable. In 2009 Emirates reported that by utilising Airservices Australia's flextracks system, it had saved nearly 10 million litres of fuel and 772 hours of flight time over a five-year period. The airline also reported the system helped to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 26,644 tonnes.

Another efficiency-boosting technique known as "tailored arrivals" has been developed by Boeing and its partners and is being implemented around the world. Tailored arrivals enables aircraft to fully utilise air-to-ground data link technology to descend into an airport with minimal direct air traffic control intervention. The system essentially helps pilots calculate the most efficient trajectory from a certain position en route to the runway using continuous descent.

This technique helps to reduce the incidence of aircraft being forced into hold patterns and structured descents before landing, minimising fuel consumption and flight time in the process. Trials of the system revealed the tailored arrivals approach reduced fuel consumption during descents by up to 39 per cent, depending on aircraft type, and total carbon emissions by more than 500,000 pounds.

These are just a few examples of the innovative solutions being employed by an industry singularly focused on reducing its environmental footprint while also improving on its operational efficiencies.

The effort of the aviation industry underscores the importance of having effective ATM systems in place.

While hidden away from the public eye, ATM plays a critical role in helping the airline industry take flight.

Neil Planzer is a vice president of air traffic management at Boeing Flight Services