Airlines are poised to reduce their emissions and reap huge fuel savings on transatlantic flights in the coming weeks as air traffic controllers experiment with giving pilots free rein to chart their own paths across skies that have been cleared out by the pandemic.
For decades, planes going between Europe and North America — one of the busiest routes globally before the pandemic with around 1,700 flights a day — have followed a handful of designated paths, forming what is essentially an invisible high altitude road network.
The experiment, which does not have a set end date, wouldn’t have been possible until recently, however improvements to the satellite systems used to monitor North Atlantic air traffic mean that controllers now have real-time data on planes over the ocean.
Michael Gill, Director of Environment at the International Air Transport Association (IATA), said the potential fuel savings are similar to what would be expected from upgrading to a new aircraft. “We estimate that each new generation of aircraft increases fuel efficiency by 15% to 20%, so this could be similar to introducing a next generation airliner.
“Using the jet stream more frequently and on a more permanent basis without putting safety at risk in any way would be welcomed.”
Fuel is currently the single biggest expense for airlines, at around 30% of their operating costs.