American Airlines, in collaboration with Google Research and Breakthrough Energy, recently unveiled the results of a novel study that focused on contrail avoidance in a bid to minimize the environmental ramifications of aviation.
Contrails arise when airplanes traverse through humid layers and can linger as cirrus clouds, ranging from minutes to hours, contingent on the circumstances. While these supplementary clouds have the capability to deflect sunlight back to space during daytime, some contrails can potentially trap heat within the Earth’s atmosphere at nighttime.
This unique study, helmed by Google Research and Breakthrough Energy with backing from American Airlines, explored the feasibility of pinpointing atmospheric regions prone to contrail formation. The research then assessed if pilots, equipped with this zone-specific data, could preclude the creation of contrails during flights.
Expressing gratitude for the collaborative venture, Jill Blickstein, American’s Vice President of Sustainability, stated that although there remain unanswered questions regarding the large-scale implementation of contrail avoidance in the aviation sector, the preliminary results from this nascent experiment are promising.
To develop accurate contrail forecast maps, Google Research and Breakthrough Energy amalgamated vast data sets, including satellite imagery, meteorological data, and flight trajectories, and utilized artificial intelligence (AI). During the span of half a year, a select group of American Airlines pilots operated 70 flights, making route alterations based on AI-driven predictions to avert contrail production.
Juliet Rothenberg of Google Research emphasized the breakthrough significance of this endeavor, stating that the fusion of contemporary AI research with a trove of data has now culminated in the verifiable avoidance of contrails in commercial flights.
Following the test flights, a review of satellite imagery by Google Research showed a remarkable 54% decline in contrail formation when pilots utilized AI predictions, relative to flights without the predictive data. This seminal evidence, derived from a limited flight count, affirms the potential for commercial flights to circumvent contrail generation. Nonetheless, supplementary research is imperative to ascertain the scalability and reproducibility of this achievement.
Highlighting the environmental implications, Marc Shapiro from Breakthrough Energy underscored the monumental impact of contrail avoidance on curbing aviation-induced climate alterations.
American Airlines remains steadfast in its commitment to operational sustainability, increasingly leaning on fuel-efficient aircraft, low-carbon fuels, and avant-garde technologies. With its vision set on attaining net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the mid-century, the airline continues to outline and pursue formidable short-term objectives. The company’s recent 2022 Sustainability Report offered comprehensive insights into its strategies and milestones achieved over the past year, notably in the realm of climate action.