Environmental Impacts

If airlines switched to more fuel-efficient airplanes for their travels, they would drastically reduce their carbon emissions and help improve the environment in a sustainable fashion. Each kilogram of fuel saved would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 3.16 kg (“Operational Fuel Efficiency”). Since the beginning of the jet age in the 1950s, airplane manufacturers have worked to reduce fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions by 70% by altering designs to limit the vehicle mass, lowering the amount of fuel that must be carried and burned (“Boeing’s New Airplane…”).

Fuel-efficient airplane designs often involve the switch to lightweight materials such as titanium, carbon fiber, and other carbon plastics like DuPont’s Nomex and Kevlar honeycombs, which have contributed a 20% fuel use reduction in many

new airplanes (“Aircraft Fuel Efficiency”). Aerodynamics can also help limit fuel consumption through airplane wing construction—winglets added to the tip of an aircraft wing reduces the aircraft’s wing drag (a measure of its air flow resistance), offering a 6% reduction in fuel consumption by limiting the amount of work necessary to propel the aircraft (Blain). Other aerodynamic advances, such as NASA and Boeing’s blended wing body design, combine the main carrier section of the airplane with the wing so that the whole craft can produce lift instead of just the wings (Green). This blended design would reduce takeoff weight by 15% and fuel burn per seat kilometer by 27% (Liebeck). Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Applied Materials Research has also researched a sharkskin imitating paint for aircrafts that could save 4.48 million tons of fuel if applied to every airplane every year around the world, as it reduces aerodynamic drag (mimicking the scales of sharks that resist water current drag in swimming) and adds no extra weight to the aircraft it is painted on (“Sharkskin for airplanes…”).

Boeing, one of the leading airplane producers in the world, recently released its B787 Dreamliner airplane model, which uses 20% less fuel and emits 20% less carbon dioxide than the B767 model it is replacing (less than any other aircraft of its size), and it is 28% below the 2008 industry limits for nitrogen dioxide emissions (“Boeing’s New Airplane…”).

The airplane accomplishes these reductions with its advanced wing design, more efficient General Electric and Rolls-Royce engines and nacelles, its first-of-its-kind lighter composite primary structure, and its smaller flight deck (“About the 787 Family”). The B787 also has a 90% smaller noise footprint than earlier models (“Boeing’s New Airplane…”), limiting noise pollution in the environment. Airbus, another leading airplane manufacturer, has similarly made environmental advances with its new A380 aircraft, which provides the lowest fuel consumption per passenger seat (75 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger kilometer) and saves 105 kg of fuel per passenger on its Paris-Tokyo round trip flight than less fuel-efficient aircrafts (“Less emissions”). The A380 burns 17% less fuel per seat than 747 models because of its lighter, smaller dual hydraulic/electric flight control architecture (“A380: New generation…”), its Engine Alliance GP7200 engine that saves 1.2 million liters of fuel and up to 3,100 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year (“Environment – Engine Alliance…”), and its lighter composite materials that are 20% lighter than commonly used aluminum alternatives (“Innovative materials”). The A380 also produces half the noise energy when taking off and three to four times less noise energy when landing than 747 models (“A380: New generation…”).

Qantas Airlines, an Australian domestic and international airline, has improved its fuel efficiency by investing in a new generation of fuel-efficient aircrafts (“Fuel Efficiency at Qantas”). Its new A380 aircraft burns less fuel per passenger than the B747 vehicle that it is replacing, and its B787 airplane is estimated to use 20% less fuel than the B767. The regional Q400 plane will similarly burn 35% less fuel than similar-sized jet planes previously in use.

Virgin Atlantic, a UK-based airline, has already started introducing 10 new A330-300 model aircrafts into its fleet, which are 9% more efficient per trip and 15% more efficient on a per-seat basis than the models that they are replacing, as they are lighter and use more sustainable resources (“Sustainability report”).

More efficient flight plans are also being developed that take shorter, straight-line paths to their destinations and would reduce all airlines’ carbon dioxide emissions by 12 millions tons in Europe—in 2011, the Chief Executive of Virgin, Steve Ridgway, worked as the Chairman of the Association of European Airlines and lobbied for an integrated, Europe-wide Air Traffic Management (ATM) system to achieve this (“Single European Sky”).

What would this mean for the environment? Less fuel consumption from airplanes would lead to a direct reduction in the amount of carbon emissions in the environment, hopefully slowing the dramatic climate changes that have been

occurring over the past century (“Climate Change Indicators…”). This in turn would help slow the destruction of ecosystems that occurs at the hands of rising Earth surface temperatures, preserving the variety of ecosystem services that human society relies on so heavily (e.g., food, purified water, clean air, aesthetic/recreational values) (“What Are Ecosystem Services?”). Community health should also improve with less carbon emissions, as air quality will likely decrease at a slower rate, heat-related illness and death from extreme weather conditions should lessen (climate change is thought to have caused over 140,000 excess deaths annually since the 1970s), and the rate of global diseases like diarrhea, malaria and dengue (which are highly climate-sensitive) should be mitigated (“Climate change and health”). The lowered noise pollution that often accompanies fuel-efficient airplane designs can also increase human psychological health (less annoyance and aggression, hypertension, stress, hearing loss, and sleep disturbance) (“Environmental health inequalities…”), as well as reduce the destruction of wildlife habitats and animal death (as noise interferes with predator and prey detection and avoidance, as well as communication necessary for reproduction and navigation in addition to hearing loss) (Gisiner).

What does this solution mean for stakeholders? From an environmental standpoint, airlines would benefit from switching to more fuel-efficient aircrafts, as doing so would boost their green reputations and likely generate more business and recognition for their company. This in turn would render airplane manufacturers more likely to shift to more sustainable designs, as doing so would generate more business. With the growing emphasis on reducing personal carbon footprints, passengers would likely be in support of the fuel efficiency improvements, as they would indirectly be lessening the burden of the aviation industry on the environment. 

Citizens of all kinds would benefit from the noise reduction and slower rate of climate change in switching to these new aircrafts, as their quality of life would likely improve with the atmosphere around them. Governments and environmental activism groups would also find satisfaction in the switch, as lower carbon emissions would lessen global pressures to find environmentally friendly alternatives to common practices.

Overall, switching to more fuel-efficient airplanes is a wise move on the part of airlines all over the world. Reducing carbon emissions in this way might lead to longer flight plans and greater plane ticket costs in the short run, but the long-term benefit of an atmosphere filled with less greenhouse gases greatly outweighs these detriments. The boosted human and animal health and welfare that results from lower emissions, as well as the reduction of habitat destruction, will preserve ecological services and keep humanity and the environment thriving for generations to come (“Evaluating Climate Policy Options…”).