Better use of jet stream offers savings to airlines

Commercial flights between New York and London could use less fuel if they make better use of the jet stream and satellite technology.

jet stream
Aircraft contrail (Image by winterseitler from Pixabay)

This is the conclusion of scientists at Reading University who found that transatlantic flights last winter could have used up to 16 per cent less fuel with better use of the fast-moving winds.

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According to the team, new satellites will soon allow transatlantic flights to be tracked more accurately while remaining a safe distance apart. This could allow aircraft to be more flexible in their flight paths in order to more accurately follow favourable tailwinds and avoid headwinds. By doing so, the aviation sector could be presented with a cheaper and more immediate way of cutting emissions than through advances in technology.

In a statement, Cathie Wells, a PhD researcher in mathematics at the Reading University 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 Reading University 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 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.

The scientists found that taking better advantage of the winds would have saved around 200km 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 per cent when flying west to New York and 2.5 per cent when flying east to London.

The study was led by the Reading University in collaboration with the UK National Centre for Earth Observation, the Nottingham University, and Poll AeroSciences Ltd.