New airline radar can save millions of gallons of fuel

Photo courtesy of the.voyager at

The radar system that monitors airplanes has changed very little in the last 50 years. Due to this, there’s a pretty large “fudge factor” planned into routing all air traffic. Very bad things can happen when planes run into each other (or even when they run into each other’s wake’s – check out this cool video of what wing tip vortices do to the air). No one wants that to happen, so there are aviation rules that keep airplanes 10 minutes apart and prohibit unplanned altitude changes.

As passengers, this means that we spend hours waiting on the runway for paths to clear in the sky, and that we often get stuck in rough patches of air that make the trip feel like a roller coaster ride. Planes waste hundreds of gallons of fuel on the ground and the rules cause even more waste because pilots are unable to take advantage of favorable tail winds at different altitudes. With fuel costs at all time highs, and maintenance costs rising as well, these rules add significantly to the financial and ecological costs of travel.

Good news though. Airbus is testing a new type of radar for aircraft, using satellite signals to replace ground based radar (and offer better coverage in the middle of the ocean):

…in late March the partners in CRISTAL ITP (the ‘ITP’ standing for ‘In-Trail Procedure’) used satellite-navigation-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance—Broadcast (ADS-B) technology to demonstrate safe cruise-altitude changes in oceanic airspace. ADS-B is now being developed internationally to replace radar as the world’s primary method of air traffic control (ATC) worldwide by the early 2020s.

This system is one of several in development that offer significant fuel savings. It also may allow jets to fly in tighter formations, which would allow more flights per day out of each airport (and reduce the wait time under current passenger loads). Until the system is up and running, here are a few things you can do to save fuel on board your next flight:

1) Pack light.
If you can get all of your clothes and toiletries into one bag or even into your carry on, do so. Every pound you avoid putting on the airplane can prevent dozens of lbs of CO2 from being produced. You may also want to consider mailing your luggage ahead to your destination via UPS or FedEx (these shipping companies use ground transport and ultra-efficient airplanes). You’ll have better insurance coverage, less chance of losing items, and the ability to track your bags. Many airlines are also adding a $25 surcharge for a second bag.

2) Conserve power
Try to avoid using anything on the plane that draws current. Overhead lights, power plugs, and even earphone plugs draw current that’s produced from jet fuel. Bring your own book light, use the bathroom on the ground before boarding, and avoid using the in-flight video screen.

3) Close your window shade
Cooling the airplane is one of the most energy intensive processes on board. If it’s sunny outside, shutting your window shade can help reflect heat away from the interior (and help the passenger in 13E get a peaceful nap). On the other hand, if it’s cold outside, a closed window shade can help insulate the plane and retain heat – which also saves fuel.

Photo courtesy of at

Virgin flies the bio-diesel skies

Photo courtesy of Uxbridging at

Virgin Atlantic has made a first step in replacing aviation gas with renewable fuel. On February 24th, 2008, the first commercial flight took to the air using a partial mix of plant oils for fuel. This could be a milestone in the use of renewable aviation fuels. The blend they burned was far from pure biodiesel – in fact, it only contained 20% of what Virgin is calling “first generation biofuel” – it’s…

derived from coconuts grown in the Philippines and babassu palm oil. Babassu palms grow wild in Brazil, so this type of palm oil is seen as eco-friendlier than most.

Hopefully, future flights will use greater concentrations of biofuel and create a viable alternative to kerosene. In the long run, Richard Branson (Virgin’s CEO) hopes to develop “second generation” biofuel sources. These may include cellulosic ethanol and even diesel made from pond scum.

Photo courtesy of keithng at