Flights in all world regions at greater risk of severe turbulence incidents as a result of climate change

Tue 10 Oct 2017 – In May, 27 passengers on board an Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Bangkok were injured when the Boeing 777 encountered clear-air turbulence. Because the plane was unable to detect the turbulence ahead, passengers had not been warned to fasten their seat belts. There is evidence that clear-air turbulence (CAT) has already risen by 40-90% over Europe and North America since 1958 and studies by researchers from the universities of Reading and East Anglia in the UK have shown that as a consequence of climate change, the frequency of turbulence on flights between Europe and North America could double by 2050 and the intensity increase by 10-40%. The same researchers have since extended their previous work by analysing eight geographic regions, two flight levels, five turbulence strength categories and four seasons, and found large increases in CAT.

“While turbulence does not usually pose a major danger to flights, it is responsible for hundreds of passenger injuries every year,” said Luke Storer, a researcher at the University of Reading and co-author of the new study. “It is also by far the most common cause of serious injuries to flight attendants. Turbulence is thought to cost US air carriers up to $200 million annually.”

Previous research focused on turbulence over the North Atlantic region – one of the busiest air routes in the world – and suggested climate change will increase high-altitude wind instabilities in the jet stream in winter, generating stronger and more frequent pockets of CAT. Using supercomputer simulations of the future atmosphere, the new study analysed changes to CAT over the entire globe by the second half of the century.

The researchers found strong increases in CAT in all regions, in particular the mid-latitudes in both hemispheres where the busiest flights are in operation, and some regions may experience several hundred per cent more turbulence. They also found that of the five turbulence strength categories, the strongest turbulence will increase the most.

Flights to the most popular international destinations are projected to experience the largest increases, with severe turbulence at a typical cruising altitude of 39,000 feet becoming up to two or three times as common throughout the year over the North Atlantic (180% more common), Europe (160% more common), North America (110% more common), the North Pacific (90% more common) and Asia (60% more common).

The study also makes the first ever turbulence projections for the Southern Hemisphere, finding the amount of airspace containing severe turbulence is calculated to increase over South America by 60% and over Australia and Africa by 50%.

“Air turbulence is increasing across the globe, in all seasons, and at multiple cruising altitudes. This problem is only going to worsen as the climate continues to change,” said Paul Williams, Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Reading and lead author of the study.

He said the results highlighted an increasing need to improve operational CAT forecasts and to use them effectively in flight planning. “Despite containing useful information and demonstrably improving the safety and comfort of air travel, these forecasts continue to include a substantial fraction of false positives and missed events,” he added.

The study points out that future aeronautical advances, such as remote sensing of CAT using onboard light detection and ranging (lidar) technology, might be able to mitigate the operational effects of the worsening atmospheric turbulence. For example, Boeing is collaborating with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency to develop a system that will detect CAT more than 60 seconds, or about 17.5km, ahead of the aircraft (see Wired article). Even if it does not give pilots enough time to divert round the threat, it would alert crew and minimise the risk of injuries.

“Our findings may have implications for aviation operations in the coming decades,” say the researchers. “Many of the aircraft that will be flying in the second half of the present century are currently in the design phase. It would therefore seem sensible for the aircraft manufacturers to prepare for a more turbulent atmosphere, even at this early stage.”

The study, ‘Global response of clear-air turbulence to climate change’, is published in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.


Copyright © 2017 GreenAir Communications

UN senior climate official calls on all governments to join CORSIA and up long-term ambitions to reduce aviation CO2

Mon 9 Oct 2017 – The participation of all countries in ICAO’s global CORSIA carbon offsetting scheme is needed for it to be fully effective, a senior UNFCCC official told industry leaders at last week’s Global Sustainable Aviation Summit in Geneva. Even then the sector’s aspirational goal of stabilising emissions at 2020 levels would not be enough to reach the Paris climate agreement targets, said Ovais Sarmad, Deputy Executive Secretary of the UN climate change agency. However, he commended the aviation industry’s 2050 reduction target and called on ICAO to up its own long-term ambitions. Dr Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu, President of ICAO’s governing Council, told the conference that a steering group of ICAO’s CAEP environmental committee had finalised recommendations for new CORSIA regulations and the UN aviation agency was working with the UNFCCC on eligible emissions units for the scheme.

In a keynote address, Sarmad said the success of the Paris Agreement would “depend on the combined efforts of every man, woman, child, government, business and industry – including the airline industry.”

While under the Agreement and its Kyoto Protocol predecessor only emissions from domestic aviation were taken into account, “climate change knows no borders nor does it have an opt-out clause,” he said.

“That’s why we welcome the decision of ICAO to implement the first global carbon market-based mechanism – CORSIA – to stabilise emissions at 2020 levels. CORSIA is the world’s first market-based measure for dealing with climate change from any industrial sector. This alone is significant and represents a much-needed step forward in ensuring that international aviation will be part of the solution to climate change.

“Nonetheless, we feel the long-term goals of ICAO need further improvement in order to be in line with the Paris Agreement. Remember, we set ourselves the target to stay well below 2 degrees C of global temperature increase. To reach it, science tells us that emissions must peak as soon as possible and we must achieve climate neutrality in the second half of this century.

“The aspirational goal of stabilising emissions at 2020 is therefore a good start, but these levels will not be enough to reach the Paris Agreement’s targets. Simply put, we need more ambition.”

Sarmad noted the aviation industry had accepted responsibility with a more ambitious target to reduce its emissions by 50% by 2050 compared to 2005 levels.

“This is the kind of ambition that every government should be happy to support the aviation industry to achieve,” he said. “Therefore, in addition to ICAO upping its long-term ambition for aviation overall, we need more member states joining CORSIA.

“The industry has pushed to get CORSIA implemented for more than six years but, as of September, only 72 member states out of 191 have volunteered to be part of its first phases. Let’s be clear: this represents close to 88% of international activity and 80% of emissions growth above 2020 levels – but the participation of all member states is needed for it to be fully effective.”

In the period leading up to the start of CORSIA, he said, clear guidelines on emissions units needed to be set, for example to avoid double-counting, and he encouraged airlines to take early voluntary action to reduce and offset their greenhouse gas emissions.

“The early actors will have the benefit of having complete systems, experience and a good understanding of what climate action means for their companies. There are significant benefits for airlines to benefit from learning-by-doing.”

ICAO’s Dr Aliu said the agency was “fully engaged” on the full implementation of CORSIA and was “very hard at work” on its regulatory framework. The Steering Group of its Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP) had recently finalised recommendations for the new Volume IV of Annex 16 to the Chicago Convention containing proposed Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) for CORSIA, he reported.

“These are now being reviewed simultaneously through the ICAO Air Navigation Commission and the Council Advisory Group on CORSIA, and they are expected to be finally adopted by the ICAO Council by mid-2018. The related applicability date is presently being targeted for January 2019,” he told delegates in his keynote speech.

The SARPs would be complemented with standardised templates, guidance and tools for what he described as “robust and transparent” monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) of international aviation CO2 emissions, which he said was crucial to the overall effectiveness of CORSIA. ICAO is currently developing a CO2 Estimation and Reporting Tool (CERT) to help simplify MRV procedures.

Recent reports have suggested a difference of opinion by certain states at ICAO on who should determine which emissions units are eligible under the scheme that airlines may use. However, Dr Aliu said that as it had been requested by its Assembly in 2016, the responsibility would rest with ICAO.

“One thing we should be very clear about in this context is that relationship between ICAO and the UNFCCC process,” he said. “We have a very good partnership with the UNFCCC Secretariat, by exchanging information and expertise of mutual interests, while respecting the specific mandates of each organisation.

“In considering carbon credits, special attention will be given to those credits generated from the UNFCCC and its Paris Agreement, as agreed by the Assembly, but our goal must be to make sure that reliable credits will be purchased by international aviation, without the possibility of them being used for double counting by other sectors. I expect good progress in the UNFCCC process, so that ICAO can take into account the relevant developments in our decision on eligible emissions units for CORSIA.”

Copyright © 2017 GreenAir Communications

LanzaTech’s low-carbon jet fuel ready for take-off as Virgin Atlantic plans for first commercial flight in October

Fri 14 Sept 2018 – Virgin Atlantic will undertake a passenger flight in October using for the first time low-carbon fuel produced through its partnership with LanzaTech. This follows a decision by members of the fuel standards body ASTM in April to include alcohol-to-jet synthetic paraffinic kerosene (ATJ-SPK) produced from ethanol as an approved blending component of conventional jet fuel for commercial flights.

Airline fuel efficiency gains not keeping pace with rapid growth in passenger traffic and emissions, finds studies

ICCT and atmosfair found Alaska Airlines to be the most fuel efficient US carrier

Wed 20 Dec 2017 – Fuel efficiency gains and fleet modernisation have failed to keep pace with overall growth in aircraft carbon emissions as a result of the rapid increase in air passenger travel, finds two reports monitoring airline performance. In its annual ranking of the carbon efficiency of 200 of the world’s largest airlines that are responsible for 92 per cent of worldwide air traffic, German organisation atmosfair says global CO2 emissions increased by 4 per cent in the past year, while the kilometres flown rose by almost 7 per cent. It says airlines are only modernising their fleets at a slow pace with just 1 per cent of aircraft worldwide classified as highly fuel efficient. A study by US NGO the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) found a sharp increase in passenger traffic drove up both profits and fuel consumption on US domestic airline operations between 2014 and 2016.

Atmosfair says even the best performing airline fleets emit on average 20% more CO2 per kilometre than the most fuel efficient planes operating at full capacity such as the Airbus A350-900 or Boeing 787-9. A fleet with only a medium level of efficiency in technology and operations releases twice as much carbon than the most fuel efficient aircraft. These new aircraft models, which can achieve consumption values of less than 3.5 litres of kerosene per 100 passengers, have raised the bar considerably in terms of carbon efficiency, it says.

Airlines that have not updated their fleets or have only made small improvements have lost ground in its latest 2017 ranking, notes atmosfair. The Atmosfair Airline Index is based on the CO2 emissions of an airline per passenger-kilometre flown on all routes, and calculated using the aircraft type, engines, use of winglets and seating and freight capacity, as well as occupancy. The efficiency index is intended to be used by travellers to compare airlines when planning their flight.

The highest ranking airlines in the index will therefore be those with the most modern fleets with high seating densities and high passenger and cargo loads. Differences among airlines on the same route can be substantial, says atmosfair, with fuel consumption per passenger-kilometre possibly being twice as high for one airline than for another.

UK charter airline TUI Airways (formerly Thomson Airways) once again topped the index, reaching 80% of the technically achievable optimum. Its German counterpart TUIFly ranked third, with regional carrier China West Air in second place in the overall ranking.

European and Chinese airlines performed well, says atmosfair, with South America’s LATAM ranked as the best international net carriers as a result of its modern fleet and high rate of occupancy. US carriers performed less well overall with only three – Alaska, Delta and United – making it into the top 50 airlines in the world.

For the 2015-2016 period, Alaska Airlines was also ranked by ICCT as the most fuel efficient on US domestic operations for the seventh year in a row, while the gap between it and the least efficient carrier, Virgin America, in 2016 widened slightly to 26%.

Between 2014 and 2016, ICCT calculates overall passenger-kilometres on US domestic operations rose by 10%, outstripping a 3% overall improvement in fuel efficiency, causing fuel use and CO2 emissions to jump by 7%.

“Industry-wide, demand is swamping energy efficiency improvements and emissions are spiking as a result,” said ICCT’s Naya Olmer, lead author of the study. Since 2012, the average profit margin for US domestic carriers has increased nearly six-fold thanks to lower fuel prices and higher ancillary fees, finds ICCT, and those carriers saved around $17 billion in fuel costs last year, about 20% of which was passed on to passengers in lower fares.

Around 30% of global CO2 emissions are attributable to US aircraft and the FAA projects aviation activity to increase 2-3% annually through to 2037.

“With airline profits surging, we need to explore environmental and consumer protection if the US is going to cap aviation carbon emissions from 2020, as it has committed to do,” commented Dan Rutherford, ICCT’s aviation Program Director and co-author of the study.

Said Dietrich Brockhagen, CEO of atmosfair: “Our findings show that aviation worldwide is not on track to meet the 1.5 degree or the 2 degree target for global warming. While some airlines have significantly improved their carbon efficiency by purchasing new aircraft, the pace of modernisation is not fast enough from a global standpoint.”

Copyright © 2017 GreenAir Communications