United Hypermiles Trans-Pacific Flights, Proves Flaws with FAA

by Rick Harrell on December 1, 2008

Many of us will be hopping on a flight to visit the family this holiday season, but what kind of mileage are we getting up there?  Airlines are strapped these days and consequently cut costs, weight, and services to make a buck — including fuel consumption.  As a frequent flier, I can report that generally means: surcharges on luggage, limited use of A/C until the cabin reaches 110-degrees, and packed flights for maximum dollars-per-mile.

The most efficient use of travel time and fuel consumption is simply choosing the proper route taken.  Flights simply cannot fly directly to their destination in a straight line or gradually up to cruise altitude and back down.  Planes have to travel on designated “highways” and take a jagged path to be tracked by air traffic control.  Descending from maximum altitude, the path would look like stair steps as each controller is handed off the flight into their airspace.

Image: Marcin Wichary

So, our controllers are using 1970’s technology, are overworked, and the system is taxed to the limit (just fly through O’Hare on any given day and you’ll see).  Airlines are trying methods of their own to save fuel with what they have to work with.  United Airlines conducted a series of fuel saving measures on a recent flight from Sydney to San Francisco using Boeing’s latest airliner, the 777.

The Asia-Pacific airspace is a large, less-crowded area in which to conduct fuel economy runs.  In this case, the FAA joined the team to allow a gradual decent, instead of the forced, step-down descent.  In total, 11 fuel saving techniques saved 1,564 gallons of fuel and prevented the release of 32,656 pounds of carbon emissions.  Some of these tricks include single-engine taxiing to the runway, direct routing, and a priority approach to landing, instead of slowing to “get in line” to land.  Most airliners these days have a flight computer designed to maximize fuel economy, but the ATC system forces another scenario.

So what about that trip to Grandma’s house in Cleveland?  Here is where the root of problem is fully exposed.  Frankly, our air traffic system is a crumbling existence of our failing infrastructure.  The federal government has not placed a sufficient focus on upgrading the system, so we’re stuck with the wasteful, inefficient design.  Even with a reduction in flights lately, the system is consistently overloaded.

Image: eschipul

The scenario is much like a crowded metro highway.  On-ramps with traffic entry control lights are like runways with ATC holding flight before takeoff into the departure pattern.  For safe spacing distances, planes slow down just like traffic jams, and exit ramps pile-up just like approach control with planes circling or slowing down.  All it would take is what’s called the “NextGen” system.

This is a solution, but it is taking quite a while to implement.  The system will use satellite tracking and updated computer systems to allow a smoother flow of flights to their direct destination and more efficient departure and arrival queues.  So, around 2012-2018, we could see an improvement.  If you’re concerned with emissions, choose an airline with a documented carbon offset scheme.  In the meantime, pack light and chip-in for that extra bag.

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