Category: Technology

What is the aviation industry doing about climate change?

What is the aviation industry doing about climate change?

Climate change is the most important global concern of the time since life on earth, as we have known it, is being radically affected by the increase in average global temperature. This crucial issue necessarily puts pressure on every industry, and especially in aviation. Many of us have in mind a general image of airplanes, since apparently effortless, fly at extraordinary speeds carrying lots of people and their baggage for very long distances. What we usually forget is that in order to accomplish the task, they consume vast quantities of fossil fuels that are released every day into the sky, contributing dangerously to the warming of the planet. But on the other hand, the first global climate action framework from any transport sector industry was presented in 2008 by the aviation industry, which has been working since then to limit their environmental impact in the short term.

Aircraft emissions

Emission of aircraft engines could be very similar to any other kind of emissions produced by the combustion of fossil fuels, but the most important difference is that almost all of them are released at high altitudes. As stated in different studies, the CO2 and other greenhouse gases emitted in the ground by fossil fueled vehicles, remain in the atmosphere for centuries causing a warming effect. However, more powerful increases are caused by gases released by planes at high elevations, for instance, vapor trails and ozone, since those chemicals catalyze a number of reactions and atmospheric effects.

According to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), aviation global CO2 emissions are about 2% of total (724 million tones of CO2 were generated in 2014), and about 12% of the CO2 emitted from all transportation sources. From the total aviation emissions, 65% are from international and 35% for domestic flights. But carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas emitted; nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides, ozone, unburned hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide are also exhausted by aircraft engines. Seeing that passenger and cargo air transportation are predicted to grow more than two times the levels of 2004 before 2020, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that aviation share on global CO2 emissions will increase to more than 5% by 2050 (a worst-case scenario says 15%), due to the increasing demand from passengers, especially in emerging markets.

What is the aviation industry doing to limit its impact?

Working together on actions intended to reduce aviation emissions is a joint effort of the whole sector, including aircraft and engine manufacturers, air traffic managers, airports and airlines. Given the economic size of the industry and the importance of the contribution to the global effort of getting on the 2°C path, there are basically four main topics of action aviation is focusing on:

Air Canada_aviation law_shahram shirkhani
Image courtesy of Roderick Eime at

Innovation in technology

New planes are generally 25% more efficient in fuel terms than previous one, and the planned investment in this matter for the next ten years will be more than $1 trillion. Additionally, aircraft and engine producers spend more than $15 billion yearly on efficiency research. In terms of fuel efficiency standards, a long term initiative will lead to predictable progress, for instance, the use of alternative fuels that have been tested on small scale (such as biomass or waste), which have the potential to cut almost 80% of emissions, compared to actual fuels. Lighter materials used in the construction of aircraft and changes in aerodynamic designs reduce the total weight and drag, a generally improve fuel efficiency. For instance, according to Airbus, A320 airplanes are 40% less expensive to operate than the previous model.


More efficient traffic control operations have great potential for saving emissions. These could include better traffic management procedures, reducing on-board equipment weight, using optimal ranges for aircraft trips, connecting airplanes directly to electricity sources in the ground while they are parked. For example, an in-flight method for landing called “continuous descent” flight paths, saves more than 140 kg of CO2 per trip.    


Reducing delays, shortening of flying times, controls on air traffic zones, building common air space among countries, military no- fly zones negotiations, satellite based traffic control (NextGen in the case of U.S.), are a few examples of changes that could effectively contribute to the reduction of Greenhouse Gas emissions. A good example is the design of alternative flying routes that can reduce distance and travel times, that if shortened just by one minute, could save at least 100 kg of CO2.

Market-based measures

More efficient technology and operations will take time to achieve emission targets. Economic measures need to be part of the strategy, and taxation of aviation fuel implemented through international agreements has the potential to incentivize more investment. Global measures need to focus on the internalization of carbon pollution ensuring that passengers are not taxed on multiple levels.   

The FAA Pathfinder Program – Shaping the Future of Aviation Law

The FAA Pathfinder Program – Shaping the Future of Aviation Law

The use of unmanned aircraft systems—also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or, more commonly, “drones”—has skyrocketed around the world, expanding far beyond their initial military applications and prompting legislative development across several nations. According to the Consumer Electronic Association, 2014 saw the sale of 250,000 consumer drones, bringing the year’s UAV sales to some $84 million, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has projected that the private drone industry will reach a valuation of $90 billion within 10 years. Drones are not only a popular outlet for aviation and technology hobbyists, but they have also become an innovative tool for several commercial sectors.

On May 6, 2015, the FAA launched the UAS Focus Area Pathfinders initiative, an industry partnership aimed at exploring the potential applications for small, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in the public and private spheres. The regulatory body announced its plans to collaborate with leading companies in a variety of industries in order to research safe UAS operations, thus informing future legislation that could expand the scope of UAS applications in US airspace.

The FAA unveiled the new initiative in Atlanta, Georgia, at Unmanned Systems 2015, an international gathering of experts in drones, intelligent robotics, and other unmanned system technologies. During the conference, the administration shared its initial focus areas for the project and introduced its first industry partners.

Blazing a Trail

The first phase of the Pathfinder initiative involved explorations into three drone flight categories. To explore the safe performance of visual line-of-sight (VLOS) operations, in which the UAS never leaves the range of the pilot’s unaided eye, the FAA enlisted the CNN news channel to test the potential of drones to assist with newsgathering in highly populated areas.

quadcopter drone

The FAA recruited UAS manufacturer PrecisionHawk to support its research into extended visual line-of-sight operations (EVLOS), which comprise drone flights carried out beyond visual range but supported by data from ground-based command and control centers. The FAA tasked PrecisionHawk with exploring potential UAS applications in the agricultural sector, specifically crop monitoring for precision agriculture.

Additionally, the FAA, set out to investigate the feasibility of UAS operations beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) in rural or isolated areas. For this flight class, in which the pilot generally uses onboard cameras to maneuver the drone around potential obstacles, the administration called upon BNSF Railroad to investigate the command-and-control challenges associated with using drones for rail system infrastructure inspections.

While spurring activity in the realm of commercial drone use, the FAA also offered new support to drone hobbyists. The FAA paired the announcement of the Pathfinders initiative with the release of B4UFLY, a smartphone app that lets recreational drone pilots know whether it is safe and legal to pilot a UAS in specific locations.

Expanding the Initiative

On October 7, 2015, FAA Deputy Administrator Mike Whitaker appeared before the House Aviation Subcommittee to take part in a hearing entitled, “Ensuring Aviation Safety in the Era of Unmanned Aircraft Systems.” He addressed the growing safety risk posed by UAS flights conducted near US airports, citing a fivefold increase in pilot reports of unmanned aircraft since 2014. The FAA now receives over 100 reports a month, and to address this, it has recruited Aerospace technology firm CACI International Inc. to join the Pathfinders program.

CACI has leveraged its expertise to develop a system to detect and identify unmanned aircraft within five miles of an airport. By detecting radio signals transmitted between a UAV and its operator, the company’s prototype system, known as SkyTracker, can force drone landings and pinpoint the operator’s location. The FAA will work with CACI to implement the tracking technology on a test basis at select airports.

In a recent staff briefing on Capitol Hill, representatives from the FAA and its industry partners detailed a number of other recent developments and achievements within the program. As of November 2015, PrecisionHawk has completed initial testing on a low-altitude traffic and airspace safety (LATAS) system—a platform that provides “safety as a service” via cellular and satellite networks. The LATAS system uses state-of-the-art airspace management technologies to bolster the safety of drone operations, enabling features such as aircraft tracking, dynamic geofencing, and detect and avoid capabilities. PrecisionHawk developed the UAS safety tool with support from Verizon, which offered its LTE network, and Harris, which provided ADS-B network capabilities. The initiative found an additional industry partner in DigitalGlobe, a space imagery and geospatial content provider that allowed the companies to access its big data system for the purpose of documenting and analyzing LATAS test flight data.

In another recent test, Pathfinders affiliate BNSF Railroad partnered with UAV developer Insitu to carry out the first commercial BVLOS operation in the contiguous United States. Over one week in October 2015, Insitu’s ScanEagle fixed-wing unmanned aircraft completed multiple flights along a 132-mile section of BNSF-operated railroad. Coordinated with nearby airports and military installations, the experimental flights were not monitored by ground-based observers or other aircraft. The ScanEagle successfully provided BNSF with real-time video throughout its flights, thus presenting potential applications for future railway monitoring. Technologies such as this offer BNSF and other railway operators the ability to detect bridge outages, eroded or warped tracks, washouts, and other safety hazards before a train encounters them.

Surveying the Public

The UAS Focus Area Pathfinders initiative is just one element of the FAA’s efforts to develop comprehensive legislation that expands UAS access while ensuring public safety. The regulatory body first proposed a set of rules regarding UAS weighing less than 55 pounds in February 2015, limiting operations to non-recreational, visual line-of-sight flights during daylight hours. The proposed rules also outlined additional requirements for registration, certification, and operational height and speed limits for small unmanned aircraft. However, the regulations are not finalized, as the FAA initiated a 60-day commentary period for public feedback on the new regulations. Going forward, it will draw on nearly 4,500 public comments, as well as the results of the Pathfinders study, to develop the final draft of its UAS regulations.