Bringing Air-Traffic Control in the 21st CenturyIf you are going somewhere in a vehicle that burns a lot of fossil fuels, it's never a good idea to take unnecessary detours. Sadly, most airplanes can't take the most elegant and efficient route to their destinations because of the limitations of the air-traffic control system that guides them. It's not the fault of the traffic controllers - they do a good job - but rather of the technology with which they have to work; the foundations of the system are 50-60 years old and produce flight paths that are far from optimal when it comes to saving fuel (and thus reducing CO2 emissions), saving money, and saving time for passengers. So what can we do about it?
Still at the R&D Stage
It seems like the general idea of what is required is well known, but implementing it will be a huge task. Right now, my understanding is that the current air-traffic control system makes planes fly with a lot more space between them than is required even by stringent safety standards, and that their flight paths are often far from optimal, something that could be corrected if they were computer-generated (and if the computer took into account more variables, such as wind speeds and directions, etc).
The Guardian has interviewed an engineer working on such a system: "[David Parkinson] believes that using computers to calculate perfectly smooth trajectories for planes could painlessly cut 8% of aviation emissions. [...] 'We've already done it on the railways,' Parkinson says. 'Many people assume that train signals are still controlled manually by signalmen, but in truth the system was automated years ago.'" This 8% cut would be equivalent to about 40m tonnes each year, or the size of the Danish economy, but the impact would be even bigger since it would also remove pollutants from the high atmosphere.
GE Aviation is also working on what they call the NextGen air-traffic control system. They claim some pretty big benefits, considering that there are no other modifications to the planes:
There’s an environmental and economic benefit in the reduction of fuel burn—a total of 5 to 15 percent for a typical narrow body operation in the U.S. We can reduce noise in the order of 30 percent for a given point on the ground near the airport. And as we continue to gain experience, we’re seeing we can improve the capacity of the air space between 3 and 10 percent.
One More Piece of the PuzzleIf you combine this greener air-traffic control technology with carbon-neutral aviation biofuels and futuristic plane designs (like on the picture above) that are much more fuel-efficient, you can probably start to get an idea of what the future of air travel will be like.