Aircraft could save money by better surfing the wind

Posted: January 28, 2021 by oldbrew in atmosphere, Emissions, innovation, satellites, Travel, wind

Boeing 767 flight deck [image credit: Continental Airlines]

In the midst of pandemic-related hard times, airline survival means looking for fuel savings ahead of trivia like emissions of harmless trace gases. A mix of nature and new tech might do the trick.
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Airlines could save fuel and reduce emissions on transatlantic flights by hitching a better ride on the jet stream, new research has shown.

Scientists at the University of Reading have found that commercial flights between New York and London last winter could have used up to 16% less fuel if they had made better use of the fast-moving winds at altitude, says TechXplore.

New satellites will soon allow transatlantic flights to be tracked more accurately while remaining a safe distance apart.

This opportunity could allow aircraft to be more flexible in their flight paths, in order to more accurately follow favourable tailwinds and avoid headwinds, offering the aviation sector a cheaper and more immediate way of cutting emissions than through advances in technology.

Cathie Wells, a Ph.D. researcher in mathematics at the University of Reading and lead author of the research, said: “Current transatlantic flight paths mean aircraft are burning more fuel and emitting more carbon dioxide than they need to.

“Although winds are taken into account to some degree when planning routes, considerations such as reducing the total cost of operating the flight are currently given a higher priority than minimising the fuel burn and pollution.”

Professor Paul Williams, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Reading and co-author of the new study, said: “Upgrading to more efficient aircraft or switching to biofuels or batteries could lower emissions significantly, but will be costly and may take decades to achieve.

“Simple tweaks to flight paths are far cheaper and can offer benefits immediately. This is important, because lower emissions from aviation are urgently needed to reduce the future impacts of climate change.”

The new study, published today in Environmental Research Letters, analysed around 35,000 flights in both directions between New York and London from 1 December 2019 to 29 February 2020.

The team compared the fuel used during these flights with the quickest route that would have been possible at the time by flying into or around the eastward jet stream air currents.

The scientists found that taking better advantage of the winds would have saved around 200 kilometres worth of fuel per flight on average, adding up to a total reduction of 6.7 million kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions across the winter period.

The average fuel saving per flight was 1.7% when flying west to New York and 2.5% when flying east to London.

Full article here.

  1. Hifast says:

    Those areas of beneficial westerly winds aloft are often (usually) accompanied by moderate or greater turbulence which is quite unpopular with the customers. Fuel savings, yes, but with higher flight attendant and customer-injury liability costs.

  2. Gamecock says:

    ‘Cathie Wells, a Ph.D. researcher in mathematics at the University of Reading and lead author of the research’

    . . . telling airlines how they should be running their airplanes.

  3. JB says:

    Something they could have figured out a long time ago by watching birds in migration.

  4. oldbrew says:

    switching to biofuels or batteries could lower emissions significantly

    Batteries are a fixed weight, Prof – unlike fuel. Meaning less carrying capacity or greater energy requirement, or both.

    Also more strain for the landing gear if total weight increases, and longer stopping distances or better brakes.

  5. MrGrimNasty says:

    Have they taken into account all the energy expended on satellites and launch rockets and computer processing power required to save all this fuel? In reality any saving will probably just be expended chasing the ‘favourable’ winds anyway.

  6. tom0mason says:

    So how do you properly organize scheduling of flights especially at busy airports when planes may arrive willy-nilly riding the vagaries of wherever the wind blows?
    “Sorry tower but due to a very active (or calm, or shifting) jet stream we’ll be arriving very early (late)”

    And as Hifast says above flying with the turbulent jet stream adds to operator cost with more aircraft inspections required, and more damages paid to injured customers and staff.


    (clear air turbulence – CAT). CAT is a sudden and often unexpected severe turbulence that appears in cloudless areas and results in the aircraft being buffeted violently. It occurs as a result of wind shears in the jet stream that cause sudden changes in direction and speed of the wind. Because it occurs without any visual representation, CAT is virtually impossible to detect with onboard instruments or the naked eye, making it difficult, if not impossible, for a pilot to avoid.
    This type of turbulence is not only a nuisance for passengers but can also cause extensive damage to aircraft and can injure passengers and flight crews. During the cruise stages of flight, CAT can cause the aircraft to suddenly shift hundreds of feet, sending items flying around the cabin.

    Turbulence is estimated to cause more than €455m (US$499m) each year in damage and delays for the airlines and other aviation businesses, which makes avoiding it a priority.

    [my bold]

  7. ivan says:

    All this paper proves that the wackademics at Reading University have little or no idea about aircraft flight.

    I would go as far to say that all the extra costs for inspections and schedule upsets would far outweigh any apparent gains in fuel economy and the CO2 reduction only being of interest to the green wackademics.

  8. NeilC says:

    If you look at the Jet stream and the small boxes with a number in it, this shows the turbulence.

    Along the jet streams, CAT (clear air turbulence) ranges from from 3 slight to 8 strong. In this instance the aircraft flying either way from America to the UK would fly great circle and not “use” the jet stream.

    Pilots avoid flying into CAT wherever possible.

  9. Jim says:

    Agreed with the ” wackadoodles”. And, agreed with the complaint about scheduling of takeoff and landing. Plies, the jet stream moves, so some days you would not be able to fly? Or you would have to stick to the sides of mountains, which is nice in fighters, or small gliders, but a freight aircraft? Owww. Talk of a bumpy ride. But it could be done, not as effeciency, or on schedule, or saftely, but it could be done.

  10. oldbrew says:

    a cheaper and more immediate way of cutting emissions than through advances in technology

    The laws of physics don’t change, no matter how many $billion you spend.

  11. dennisambler says:

    “while remaining a safe distance apart.” Is that 2 metres?

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