This software aims to make your flight smoother and help the planet



Enlarge / So many planes are lined up on the runway awaiting take-off. These Air Force planes are part of the operation shutdown service for transport in a Covid-19 situation.

Naruecha Jenthaisong | Getty Images

Fasten the seat belt buckle and know that your flight is on its way to its destination: Nice. Getting stuck in a traffic jam on the tarmac and waiting for your flight to take off: not so pleasant. It turns out that the wait is not pleasant for the planet either.

Flying in an airplane is already one of the most polluting activities you can do. Globally, aviation produced over 1 billion tonnes of carbon emissions in 2019, more than 2% of all human-made emissions, or more than shipping or rail. Aircraft engines also emit nitrogen oxides, soot particles and water vapor, which also contribute to global warming.

Taking off and landing is usually only a short part of a flight, but accounts for a quarter of its emissions, according to NASA. Unnecessary aircraft stops during this process increase fuel consumption. It would be better for everyone, including passengers, if planes exited and entered airports smoothly.

That’s because airplane engines are designed to run in the air, says Hamsa Balakrishnan, an MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics who studies airport operations. When planes wait at their gates, they rely on auxiliary power systems to run only the essentials. But once a plane pushes back, it begins to run its engines and burn fuel. Idling at airports also affects local air quality, says Balakrishnan – people live and work closer to airports than to the middle of the sky. It’s noisy too.

Now the Federal Aviation Administration and NASA have created a system to smooth takeoffs and landings, eliminating unnecessary delays and emissions. Real rocket scientists were involved – the system grew out of NASA’s work to help spacecraft establish stable trajectories in space.

Today, most airports create a queue for take-offs, depending on when an aircraft pushes back from the gate. This can lead to traffic jams on the tarmac and overcrowded runways where planes idle while waiting to take off. In addition, air traffic controllers do not always have a good idea of ​​how long it will take for an aircraft to taxi and climb into the air. In fact, while the FAA obtains the schedule from each airline, controllers don’t know exactly when a flight is going to depart until it reaches a specific part of the ramp. They deal with this unpredictability by creating buffers, extra time here and there that ensures the whole system runs smoothly. As a result, “there is a lot of inefficiency that sets in,” says Balakrishnan, the MIT professor.

For passengers, inefficiency is like waiting to board a plane that was due to land 30 minutes ago, or strapped in an uncomfortable seat while waiting in a line of planes to take off. For airlines, inefficiency is like burning unnecessary fuel and releasing unnecessary emissions into the air.

The new software is part of a two-decade effort to modernize the country’s air traffic control system. It incorporates 11 bits of real-time airline data, including when an aircraft has actually left the boarding gate and when another has struck the tarmac, to more precisely choreograph aircraft movements inside and outside the airport. It’s not that the information is so complicated or so new. It is because the actors of the airport – operators, air traffic control, airlines – have a way of sharing it automatically, in real time, with fewer phone calls. Ultimately, the system should do away with the paper progress tapes that controllers use to manually track flights, creating a fully digital system that can, for example, remind controllers when a certain runway is closed.

The system can save a lot of fuel. After the FAA spent four years testing the new software with American Airlines at Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina, it concluded that the reduction in taxi times saved more than 275,000 gallons of fuel per year, the equivalent of 185 flights between New York and Chicago aboard a Boeing 737. Carbon emissions have been reduced by more than 2,900 tonnes per year, roughly the same amount emitted by the combustion of 15 coal wagons. For passengers, the project reduced delays by almost 40 minutes a day. For Charlotte Airport, which is one of the busiest in the world, including commercial, cargo, military and private flights, that means “you can take off and take off more planes,” says Haley Gentry, director of aviation at the airport. . “We are maximizing the use of the pavement we have.

The FAA hopes to deploy the new software to 27 of the country’s busiest airports in cities such as Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, New York, Phoenix and San Francisco, starting in 2022. It could take 10 years for the FAA to roll out. agency to reach all 27.

For a single passenger, the changes may seem incremental, says Pam Whitley, assistant administrator of the FAA for its modernization program. But she expects there will be less trouble. “This experience of showing up at the boarding gate, the plane is not there, I don’t know when the plane is going to show up – I hope the passenger will not experience it”, she says.

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