When travelers board an Alaska Airlines flight, most don’t know it but that plane is lighter than other Boeing 737s or Airbus A320s, according to the airline.
That’s because, of when the COVID-19 pandemic, the airline worked with the slowdown in flying to develop, test, and begin new products to renew plastics on board.
Worked with plastic water bottles and plastic cups.
Lighter alternatives are being used. Food containers have been redesigned. It not only allows the airline to cut the use of plastics, which can take over 400 years to decompose in the environment, but the airline tells less weight onboard means it is consuming less fuel, saving money, and decreasing carbon output.
Airlines and plane manufacturers have a fairly new and very honed focus on going green. United Airlines is promising to go carbon neutral by 2050. Alaska Airlines says it will go carbon neutral by 2040.
Other airlines are all so agreed to pay to offset their carbon output.
- Last week, United flew the first commercial airliner with travelers onboard using 100% sustainable fuels made of sugar water and corn. The fuels output far less carbon but cost much more than traditional fuels. United’s Boeing 737-Max 8 demonstration flight flew from Chicago to Washington D.C.
Onboard efforts like those at the airlines combined with attempts from planemaker Boeing are leading to a seismic shift in the airline industry. It wasn't that long ago that the smell of jet fuel was just a normal part of the airport experience. Between utilizing sustainable fuels, electric and hydrogen airplanes that are in development, and reducing overall fuel use, the industry vows it is trying to cut the exhaust that comes out of a plane's engines and goes into the environment.
Boeing’s flying laboratory
ABC News recently got access to a flying laboratory that Boeing calls the ecoDemonstrator. Boeing borrows brand new airliners before they are delivered to a carrier.
It strips each plane of its normal interior and sets up a flying testbed with racks of computers, cables, and wires running all over, and sensors all around the plane.
For at least a few more weeks, the popular ecoDemonstrator is on board a new Boeing 737-Max that will soon have the regular interior installed and will be delivered to the airline that ordered it. But for now, engineers and scientists can test all kinds of technology that could soon make flying greener.
“The ecoDemonstrator program has been around for about a decade,” program manager Rae Lutters explained to ABC News while onboard the aircraft. “We take innovative technologies out of the lab, put them on an airplane, and fly them around to help explore our learning and understanding of sustainable technologies.”
- The special wingtips now seen on Boeing aircraft called split scimitar winglets — those V-shaped ends of wings on brand-new planes — are an immediate result of an idea that was tested on a previous eco Demonstrator and shown to save fuel and improve performance. The winglets are now members of planes flying all across the world.
On the current ecoDemonstrator, Boeing’s teams are testing items same wall panels made out of excess carbon fiber from the Boeing 777, which they hope will be lighter and quieter.
They are also testing new lower-profile warning lights that will cause less drag on the plane and, in return, burn less fuel. And they are working on new touchscreens in the cockpit and air sensor equipment to test the air quality at airports globally when a plane lands
The current ecoDemonstrator has been flying all over the world with sensors and computers analyzing all of the experiments on board to determine if they will help make the aircraft greener.” We’re trying to get the airplane to operate as efficiently as possible,” said told.
Getting rid of plastics onboard
Down the road from Boeing Field in its new high-tech headquarters overlooking Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Alaska Airlines is also trying new ideas to cut down on weight and fuel burn.
By ditching plastic water bottles and cups in November, the airline said it will save 18 Boeing 737 worth of weight each year. It’s a feat no extra-large airline in the U.S. has accomplished.
“The biggest issue we were having was single-use plastic,” Alaska Airlines manager of guest products Todd Traynor-Corey answered.
“Even if you have the largest recycling performance possible, a percentage of that plastic is operating to end up in the landfills and even into the ocean. Being based on the West Coast, ocean life and sustainability are really important to us.”
During the pandemic, the airline carried out a long process of recruiting alternatives to plastic bottles. They did drive tests and required feedback from staff and travelers. Eventually, they settled on Boxed Water.
“This is a very noticeable difference. It’s not a clear difference. There’s a price that comes with it. We are premium water that’s out in the industry and Alaska saw that we are doing better.
Our lifecycle analysis shows that. Super big kudos to Alaska for stepping up and making the change away from plastic and to cartons,” said Boxed Water founder and CEO Daryn Kuipers.
The iconic plastic cup that used to sit on tourists’ tray tables is now gone from Alaska Airlines. It has been quite a ride trying to find a simple paper cup that fits the needs of the airline as its planes travel around North America.
For months, different paper cups were tested with different liquids. Most travelers would have no idea so much work went into changing to a paper cup. The work is still underway. They have yet to find a biodegradable plastic cup that can hold hard alcohol. Various alcohols eat through paper, which they found was an issue aboard their planes.
Using artificial intelligence to guide planes
Alaska Airlines’ efforts are not stopping with what flight attendants are serving on board. The airline is now employing an artificial intelligence (A.I.) program called Flyways to suggest routes that can get passengers to their destinations faster, smoother, and while burning less fuel.
“Flyways is probably the most exciting thing that I’ve come across in airline technology since I can remember,” answered Pasha Saleh, who is head of corporate development at Alaska Airlines. Saleh is also a pilot for Alaska.
Alaska Airlines has uniquely teamed up with a Silicon Valley startup to develop Flyways using A.I. to better suggest the best way to route aircraft. Airline dispatchers are given suggestions on how and where to fly planes.
They can accept or reject what the A.I. is suggesting. As the weeks and months go on using Flyways the platform is getting better at its suggestions due to machine learning in the A.I.
“We found this company called Airspace Intelligence and at the time that we met them, it was only two guys. Two guys backed by Google,” explained Saleh.
At that time, Airspace Intelligence was developing software to better route vehicles on the ground. There was a realization that technology could work in the air.
By analyzing numerous sources, the platform can predict what the weather, air traffic, and other aspects impacting the flight will be when a plane reaches any area of the country.
It might, for instance, choose to delay a flight by two or three minutes knowing that will help avoid a thunderstorm over Oklahoma in three hours or support the flight to avoid gridlock in the landing pattern in New York, which would spend time and fuel.
“Flyways will, in many cases, reduce the time of a flight, therefore, reducing the fuel burn, and reducing the emissions,” answered Diana Birkett Rakow, senior vice president of sustainability at Alaska Airlines.
“If you went a teeny bit slower, you were on time, you had a gate, and because you went a teeny bit slower the airplane burned less fuel, that might be a win/win combination for both the guest and the operation and sustainability impact,” said Rakow.
The airline said Flyways is also quite good at promoting flights to avoid turbulence by analyzing lots of weather data and giving smoother flights.” This is what machines are good at, taking huge data sets and putting them together,” according to Saleh.
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The team at Alaska Airlines says the benefits are enormous also they would love other airlines to take onboard with Flyways because it would help make the aviation system safer, faster, and more environmentally friendly.
The Environmental Defense Fund has teamed up with the Rocky Mountain Institute to create the Sustainable Fuels Aviation Buyers Alliance. Some of the world’s largest companies have agreed to join the EDF’s initiative to support making sustainable fuels more available and cost-effective for airlines to buy.
- “Airlines are going in the right direction,” Kim Carnahan, secretariat lead of the Sustainable Fuels Aviation Buyers Alliance told ABC News.
Carnahan, who is former U.S. chief negotiator for climate change, told airlines are in a tough position with the cost of sustainable products being so much higher than traditional fuels.
“They compete fiercely with one another and have very slim margins. Sustainable aviation fuel which is the only option they have to fully decarbonize is anywhere between two and four times the cost of fossil jet fuel,” according to Carnahan.
But at Greenpeace, the organization believes much of what the industry is doing is so-called “greenwashing.” It doesn’t think such solutions are viable long term and that the changes being made are minor cosmetic measures distracting from a bigger problem of rising emissions in the air travel sector. The organization says the aviation industry is a major polluter that needs to be completely revamped by reducing the number of flights to truly become carbon-neutral.
- “That’s why Greenpeace is calling for a phase-out of short-haul flights in Europe when a train or ferry alternative under six hours exists,” said Herwig Schuster, Greenpeace in Europe’s transport campaigner. The group is calling on governments globally to buy in better rail service.
“Airlines have introduced a number of alleged ‘green’ measures based on excessive optimism on so-called ‘sustainable aviation fuels,’ carbon offsetting and future aircraft designs,” said Schuster. “But these technologies are not the solution to tackling the rising emissions in this sector and will largely not be marketable solutions.”
But the airlines and plane makers assume they are investing huge amounts of money to make a true difference and that they have to work within the confines of current technology while they plan for the decades ahead.
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