Airplane manufacturers such as Boeing are working on improving the fuel efficiency of planes. But it might take some airline companies a while to upgrade their fleets.
(Photo courtesy of The Boeing Company)
Getting somewhere by airplane used to be a luxury. Now many of us wouldn’t know life without it. As air travel gets more and more popular, there’s been more concern about the environmental impacts of our flying habits. Rebecca Williams takes a look at what’s happening in the skies:
Getting somewhere by airplane used to be a luxury. Now many of us
wouldn’t know life without it. As air travel gets more and more
popular, there’s been more concern about the environmental impacts of
our flying habits. Rebecca Williams takes a look at what’s happening
in the skies:
Air travel still takes a backseat to car travel as a way to get around.
But it’s growing by about 5 percent a year. There are more low cost
carriers these days, and plane tickets are cheaper, in real dollars,
than they used to be.
Airplanes have gotten a lot more efficient, but they’re not off the
hook, either. They burn fossil fuels, so they emit carbon dioxide.
CO2 is almost universally agreed to be the main culprit of global
Planes are responsible for about 3% of man-made CO2 emissions.
Compared to cars and coal-burning power plants, that looks like a
pretty small percentage.
But there’s something else unique to planes that has scientists
Gidon Eshel is a climate scientist at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. He
says planes also emit nitrous oxide and water vapor. That’s the
contrail you see. Both of those gasses can trap heat in Earth’s
“The emissions associated with aviation are very important – roughly
twice as important as CO2 alone because they occur in such high reaches
of the atmosphere.”
Eshel says the effects of nitrous oxide and water vapor are stronger
than when they’re released near the ground.
There’s not much planes can do about flying so high up. But the
airline industry says it’s hard at work to make its planes more fuel
Bill Glover directs environmental strategy for Boeing Commercial
“The distance we could fly on a gallon of gas 50 years ago, we can now
do on less than a quart of gas. What we have ahead of us is more
improvements in materials, engines, aerodynamics, all of those are
going to contribute to fuel efficiency.”
Both Boeing and Airbus have unveiled shiny new planes that get more
miles to the gallon. So airlines should rush out and get the latest
Well, it’s not that simple.
For starters, there’s the price tag: anywhere from about 14 million all
the way up to 300 million dollars.
Gueric Dechavanne is an airline industry analyst with OAGback Aviation
Solutions. He says it’s definitely in the airlines’ best interest to
upgrade their fleets. He says the cost of fuel has risen dramatically
over the past couple of years. But Dechavanne says even if airlines
can afford the newest model, it’ll be a long time before they can get
“It’s not as easy as placing the order and getting the airplane today.
From the standpoint of the 787, the latest and greatest, 2014 or 2015
is the earliest delivery you can get it if you place an order today.”
Generally, the younger the airline company, the more fuel efficient
their fleet will be. Dechavanne says that means newer low cost
carriers such as JetBlue, Skybus and Spirit have the newest planes.
He says the so-called legacy airlines – such as Northwest and American
Airlines – have older fleets because they’ve been around for a while.
They have a much harder time upgrading their fleets. Dechavanne says
airlines don’t want to retire a plane before they’ve squeezed a full
life out of it:
“For the majority of U.S. carriers the fleet is still fairly young;
it’s tough for them to replace all of the inefficient airplanes just
because of the fact that fuel has gotten out of control.”
Dechavanne says, instead, some carriers are looking at less expensive
fixes – such as adding winglets to the plane to make it more
The experts have advice for travelers, too: Try to avoid connecting
Climate scientist Gidon Eshel says direct flights are better than
flights with several stops. And although it sounds counterintuitive,
it’s more efficient to take one really long flight a year than a bunch
of shorter flights.
That’s because airplanes have an ideal cruising height – about 30,000
“To get there they need to climb a whole lot which makes short flights
relatively inefficient, sometimes very inefficient compared to long
Another thing the experts recommend is lightening the load: pack light
and leave the hardcover books at home.
And as much as we all hate jam-packed planes, putting a lot of people
on one flight is actually better for the environment than having extra
Many airports don't offer airlines recycling, so all
those soda cans and other recyclables are going into landfills.
The hundreds of thousands of people who fly each year
might think their soda cans are properly recycled, but most airports don't
offer that service to airlines.
Airlines and airports could save money by recycling their cans
and other disposables. Right now, in most airports they're being thrown
A new report finds most airlines throw away their empty soda cans and other
recyclables. Mark Brush has more:
A new report finds most airlines throw away their empty soda cans and other
Mark Brush has more:
The environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, surveyed around 30
airports and airlines about recycling. They found that most don’t do it. The group
estimates the airline industry trashes about 80% of the materials it
Allen Hershkowitz is with the NRDC. He says that they found the airports with the
recycling programs also save the most money:
“In some cases over six figures annually were saved were save by those airports that
the highest recycling rates. So really, in this particular case, economic cost
ecological intelligence work in a mutually reinforcing way.”
Hershkowitz says airlines are often at the mercy of the airports they fly into. If
recycling program in place they have a difficult time sorting out all their used
Although commercial airlines have been replacing their fleets with jets that are quieter and more fuel efficient, the engines actually emit more of certain pollutants. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham explains:
Although commercial airlines have been replacing their fleets with jets that are quieter and more
fuel efficient, the engines actually emit more of certain pollutants. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Lester Graham explains:
The federal government’s watchdog agency, the General Accounting Office, issued a report that
finds many airports have worked to reduce air pollution. Some have converted airport ground
vehicles to cleaner burning fuels. Newer jet engines emit less carbon monoxide and
hydrocarbons. But, they produce higher amounts of nitrogen oxides than engines on the older
models. As much as 40-percent more during landings and take offs. Those emissions contribute
to ozone pollution. That’s helping to keep more than half of the nation’s major airports in
violation of the federal ozone standards.
The General Accounting Office noted there are technologies available to limit nitrogen oxides
emissions from some of the newer aircraft models. Many government officials indicate that will
likely have to be the next step if ozone pollution around the airports is to be reduced.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.
Americans are still struggling to recapture the skies, even as they follow news of military action in Afghanistan. Some airlines are attracting passengers with reduced prices, and airport officials are reassuring citizens with promises of heightened security. Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Julia King thinks that both on the ground and in the air, maybe our nation’s best weapon is one the naked eye can’t see:
Americans are still struggling to recapture the skies, even as they follow news of military action in Afghanistan. Some airlines are attracting passengers with reduced prices and airport officials are reassuring citizens with promises of heightened security. Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator, Julia King, thinks that both on the ground and in the air, maybe our nation’s best weapon is one the naked eye can’t see.
My 61-year-old peace activist mother is ready to fight. She called me the day before her first post-Sept. 11th air travel and announced her intentions to battle any would-be hijackers.
“I’ll be one of the people who charge them,” she said. “I would hope that my adrenaline would be pumping and maybe I wouldn’t even feel it if I was stabbed.”
She wasn’t joking; she has enlisted in the war against terrorism — and her resolve shouldn’t be underestimated. Nor should we underestimate the power of similar declarations made by millions of other Americans just like my mother. They are all part of a vast, hidden arsenal: everyday people with a plan to resist. They aren’t militia types, and although gun sales are reportedly up, many of our newest “soldiers” would never even consider purchasing a weapon.
There is something oddly reassuring about the image of grandparents taking on terrorists — gray-haired ladies sitting quietly beneath the radar until the last minute when they storm out of hiding and thwart the evildoers. It’s a scene right out of a B movie, one that until recently would have left all but the most fanciful of us rolling our eyes in disbelief.
But that was before the plane went down off-target in Pennsylvania at the hands of heroic passengers. That was before a nation spent countless midnight hours concocting scenarios in which they were up there.
“What would I have done,” we have all asked ourselves by now. “What will I do?” My mother’s answer (“I’ll charge!”) is a good one, one that both offers comfort and fulfills some primal need to maintain control in the face of chaos. What makes it so poignant is that many of the new enlistees of this war do not, as a habit, raise their fists in anger. And even now, it’s not anger that motivates them, but rather a sacred sense of human duty to minimize harm to others.
We can search everyone who gets on a plane, lock cockpit doors, arm pilots, but in the end, this war may be fought and won by 61-year-old peace activists and skinny guys with glasses – just ordinary people who are willing to do extraordinary things.
Each winter, airports around the country use more than 30 million
gallons of deicing fluid. The gooey substance prevents ice and snow from
building on a plane’s wings. However, the fluid can also seep into the
ground and pollute groundwater. It’s a costly problem for airports. But
now, one has found a unique solution. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports:
Each winter, airports around the country use more than 30 million gallons of deicing fluid. The
gooey substance prevents ice and snow from building up on a plane’s wings. However, the fluid can
also seep into the ground and pollute groundwater. It’s a costly problem for airports. But now, one
has found a unique solution. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports:
(sound of plane)
It’s a cold, overcast day in Albany, New York as a passenger plane lifts off the runway. It’s one
of the hundred or so planes that take off from here every day. At this time of year, they’ll all
have to be deiced. Steve Lachetta is the Albany airport’s planner and environmental manager.
“We’re in the Hudson River basin and our winter season extends for over 214 days, from early
October through late April or early May. Albany, being a typical small hub, uses 100 thousand
gallons of PG per year.”
PG is propylene glycol, the main ingredient in deicing fluid that makes it gooey. Any time the
temperature dips below 40 degrees, airports are required by the FCC to use PG. The problem is,
propylene glycol also seeps into the ground.
And in Albany’s case, it started showing up in the nearby Mohawk River – a local source for
drinking water. So, Albany became the first airport in the country to receive a state mandate to
clean up its deicing fluid.
“We were spending one million dollars to dispose of our winter storm water after collection. So we
tried every form of recycling the fluid, trucking it off airport. And we took a common sense
approach to cost control and became very interested in establishing biological treatment.”
In other words, Lachetta turned to microorganisms for help. He added bacteria to the dirty storm
water. And found they started digesting the propylene glycol. The bacteria broke it down into
acidic acid and then carbon dioxide and methane. The process gives the microorganisms fuel to grow.
“The manufacturers refer to propylene glycol as the filling of the Oreo cookie of the microbe world
and very readily digested so we did much experimentation and found total removal. Byproducts are 85
percent pure methane and 15 percent carbon dioxide.”
(sound inside treatment plant)
That pure methane is put to use here – providing heat for the airport’s storm water treatment
plant. It looks like something out of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The room is filled
with a jumble of brightly colored pipes. There’s deep purple, vibrant green and canary yellow. Each
one has a special purpose.
“The large blue pipes are cycling 22 gallons per minute through the large vessels outside standing
35 feet high, 14 feet wide, and the brown pipes are the dirty storm water directly off the aircraft
aprons and the light blue pipes are for the clean water.”
Those pipes run to and from a pair of giant mixing vats. They stir up a brew of dirty storm water,
microorganisms, and some extra nutrients. It’s all cooked at a temperature of 85 degrees. And the
result is clean water.
Shelly Zuskin-Barish is the project manager for the EPA’s Airport Deicing Operations Study. She
says Albany has the most stringent treatment program in the country.
“I was very impressed when reviewing their treatment system. We found they were getting very good
removal in terms of not only propylene glycol but also an additive called tolyltriazole.”
Zuskin-Barish says there’s growing concern about tolytriazole because of its impact on aquatic
life. This is the first system she’s seen that removes it. As for propylene glycol, most airports
use a combination of recycling it and trucking it off site. Albany’s system removes more of the
pollutants, and it’s cheaper. Zuskin-Barish says Albany is on the cutting edge because it had to
Albany airport has a local limit through their own state of 1 part per million propylene glycol.
For the different airports we’ve seen, that’s a very tight limit and I think in large part, pushed
them to go to this technology, which is helping them achieve those levels on a daily basis.
But now, other states – and countries – are starting to crack down as well. And Albany’s Steve
Iachetta is getting lots of visitors.
“We’ve been visited by Tokyo International, some European airports, the Department of Defense, much
larger airports, Denver, Nashville, other hubs that have come to see our early pioneering efforts.
It’s great to be on the leading edge. It’s nice to know we can contribute to improving the
Right now, airport pollution controls differ from state to state. But next winter, the EPA will
consider national regulations to govern the disposal of deicing fluid. That may bring even more
visitors to Albany – to find out how a small airport ended up with the country’s most innovative
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Karen Kelly in Albany, New York.
Nine states in the Midwest want high-speed passenger rail. They might getit… but they’ll have to pay for most of it themselves. The Great LakesRadio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports… it’s not likely much help willbe coming from Congress: