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Creating a More Sustainable, Resilient National Airspace System: Part 2

Christian Albertson
Sep 08, 2021

GHI Blog

Whether you are traveling through Atlanta or Bangor, airports have more in common than you think. The National Airspace System (NAS) is one of the most complex system of systems that has ever operated, and nearly every part of it produces CO2 emissions. Buses carrying passengers, tugs pulling aircraft on the ramp, and the aircraft engines themselves all contribute to global pollution. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, commercial aircraft alone produces 3% of total US greenhouse gas emissions. With the additional NAS polluters included in the equation, much more CO2 is added to the atmosphere. The Bureau of Transportation statistics show that there are over 5,200 public use airports in the US, and the Federal Aviation Administration states that over 45,000 flights operate daily from those airports. As part of a 6-part series, this blog discusses the complex challenges and solutions inherent in creating a more sustainable, resilient NAS.

Make Improvements across the Value Chain

So how do we solve this big issue? Unfortunately, the solution is just as multifaceted. One improvement at one airport, a small solar farm for instance, will make a difference at that location but will do little to reduce the overall issue. With every airport being a unique entity, each will have measures better suited for their individual budgets and available space to become more sustainable. 

Airports are concentrating on electric tugs to tow aircraft, installing solar farms, and using zero-emissions vehicles when possible. Airlines are using a 50/50 blend of sustainable aviation fuel and standard jet fuel and installing winglets that conserve fuel. Ground control is using more direct routes to runways and terminals while Air Traffic Control (ATC) is routing aircraft to shorten flight times. Visionaries are working on putting electric aircraft into service, using hydrogen-based fuel and designing new, aerodynamic, and fuel-efficient aircraft. All of this is in the effort to reduce CO2 emissions. 

Unified Solutions Are Key

One improvement on one flight will make a miniscule impact on pollution, but that same improvement on 45,000 flights a day will start to make a difference. The same goes for an improvement at one airport: it would have a larger impact if all 5,200 made a change. And if ATC were able to route aircraft to save 10 gallons of fuel per flight to start, imagine the outcome. 

We need a comprehensive solution. Every airport, every airline, the ATC, and technology will all need to change. Though every component of the NAS needs to implement what works best for that them, without a unified effort, we will not be able to reduce CO2 as much as required to meet net-zero goals