American Airlines' Contrail Avoidance Study

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KnowESG_American Airlines' Contrail Avoidance Study
Image courtesy of American Airlines

To lessen the ecological impact of aviation, American Airlines has revealed the findings of a ground-breaking study that focused on reducing contrail formation.

When aeroplanes fly over moist layers, contrails appear and occasionally develop into cirrus clouds that last for various amounts of time, depending on the weather. These additional clouds can reflect daylight back into space during the day; however, specific contrails can confine heat within the Earth's atmosphere during the night.

Conducted under the leadership of Google Research and Breakthrough Energy, with the active involvement of American Airlines, the study aimed to ascertain the feasibility of identifying atmospheric zones predisposed to contrail formation. Subsequently, the team explored whether pilots could sidestep contrail creation in-flight by utilising data pinpointing the locations of these zones.

Jill Blickstein, American's Vice President of Sustainability, expressed gratitude for collaborating with Google Research and Breakthrough Energy to advance the science of contrail avoidance.

Blickstein noted that while there are still unanswered questions about the practical implementation of contrail avoidance across the aviation sector, the promising outcomes of the initial test serve as a foundational proof point. She looks forward to disseminating these findings to stakeholders both within and beyond the aviation industry.

Google Research and Breakthrough Energy harnessed extensive datasets encompassing satellite images, weather conditions, and flight trajectories to create contrail forecast maps using artificial intelligence (AI). A select group of American pilots completed 70 flights over a span of six months, utilising AI-driven predictions to make slight adjustments to routes forecasted to generate contrails.

Juliet Rothenberg, Head of Product for Climate AI at Google Research, emphasised that their contrail predictions blend cutting-edge AI research with copious amounts of satellite imagery, flight data, and weather information.

Rothenberg hailed the partnership with American Airlines and Breakthrough Energy as instrumental in realising a significant stride toward understanding a high-potential solution for climate concerns.

Upon analysing satellite imagery post-trial flights, Google Research confirmed that flights where pilots leveraged AI forecasts to avoid contrail formation witnessed a 54% reduction in contrail creation, as measured by distance, compared to flights where predictions weren't utilised.

This initial demonstration showcases that commercial flights can indeed tangibly evade contrail generation. While this success has been proven on a limited scale, further research is required to validate and scale its effectiveness.

Marc Shapiro, Director of Breakthrough Energy Contrails, highlighted that circumventing contrails might be a pivotal strategy to curb aviation's climate footprint, and this study exemplifies the power of collaborative efforts between forward-thinking organisations to address complex challenges.

American Airlines is actively enhancing its sustainability by employing more fuel-efficient aircraft, progressively adopting low-carbon fuel, and embracing new technologies. The airline has set ambitious interim targets as part of its roadmap to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

In line with these efforts, American recently released its 2022 Sustainability Report, outlining advancements in its strategy and progress on pivotal issues, including climate change.

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Source: American Airlines

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