Airlines look to fuel-saving techniques as EU ETS draws closer

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By Mike Scott

Cutting fuel use has become even more crucial for airlines as they move closer to being forced to pay for what they emit under the European Union's emissions trading system (ETS). Other emissions-reduction programmes, such as the EU's Clean Sky initiative and Europe and the USA's respective air traffic management improvement projects, are well publicised.

However, there are a range of behind-the-scenes measures that individual airlines are taking to limit fuel consumption, and this is feeding a niche market for companies offering advice on how to take advantage of such techniques.

The financial incentive to cut fuel consumption has never been clearer. For every one cent rise in a gallon of fuel, American Airlines sees its costs rise by an extra $25 million a year, and a 1% improvement in fuel efficiency in the aviation industry can lower fuel costs by $700 million a year, according to the International Air Transport Association. On average, airlines incur about $100 a minute/flight in total operating costs, IATA says. Therefore, even saving 1min a flight could reduce total industry operating costs by more than $1 billion a year and significantly reduce environmental emissions.

Paolo Carmassi, EMEA president of Honeywell Aerospace, says the key issues for airlines to consider are: "What type of fuel do you burn, where do you burn it and how long do you burn it for?"

Fuel savings can be found in every aspect of the business, says Ian Britchford, fuel saving manager at ETS Aviation, a consultancy that advises airlines how to save fuel and measure and monitor fuel consumption.

Britchford was previously fuel consumption manager for budget airline EasyJet. The job arose after a fuel-saving assessment by IATA, which identified areas where savings could be made but also revealed the carrier had no way of assessing any achieved savings. EasyJet looked at its pre-flight planning, ground operations, new coatings for aircraft and whether there was any benefit to cleaning and polishing the fuselage to reduce friction and improve fuel efficiency.

"We also tried to make our flights as efficient as possible and had very aggressive policies on weight saving, looking at everything from in-flight magazines to the number of toilet rolls and the amount of water on board," Britchford says.

Removing unnecessary items from cabins such as old phone equipment, logo lights, galley tables, magazine racks and razor outlets saves more than 4.2 million litres (1.1 million USgal) of fuel a year, says American Airlines. The company encourages staff to suggest ways to save fuel under its Fuel Smart programme, which saved American 466 million litres of fuel, equivalent to $285 million, last year.

easyjet faro airport (c) rex 
 © Rex Features
 Shorter taxi times can help cut fuel consumption

Another software-based approach being developed tackles the fuel itself. Fuel Matrix, a UK-based company, says aircraft carry too much fuel because pilots are not as confident about flight safety when lesser loads are suggested by operators. Fuel Matrix has developed a programme to allow pilots to make more accurate assumptions and calculations about the amount of fuel they need to carry, which could save 0.6-1.6% per sector.

Other fuel-saving techniques airlines have experimented with include one-engine taxiing. Honeywell, seeking to take this idea one step further in a joint venture with Safran, is working on an electric taxiing system that will use the aircraft's auxiliary power unit to power electric motors in the main landing gear.

"Today, from the moment they leave the gate, aircraft have to blast their way to the taxi position and then they often have to idle for long periods," Carmassi says. "For a flight of under 2h, taxiing to and from the runway can use a significant proportion of fuel." Short-haul flights could cut their fuel consumption by up to 4%, he adds.

Safran chief executive Jean-Paul Herteman says the joint venture has been "talking extensively with airlines and the answer has been very positive", although a launch customer has yet to be secured. He adds that the time taken to recoup the costs of installing the system would be "similar" to the time taken to recover the costs associated with installing winglets.

The system, which will be available new or as a retrofit, is aimed at single-aisle narrowbody aircraft and is planned to enter service in 2016.

Honeywell and Safran have acquired a used Airbus A320 to use as a testbed. The full system will be tested in 2012, with onboard demonstrations planned for 2013. For long-haul aircraft, engine washing to remove contaminants is becoming a popular way to cut fuel consumption. American Airlines says its engine-wash programme is saving 27.3 million litres of fuel and reducing CO2 emissions by almost 69,000 tonnes a year. Connecting aircraft to ground power as soon as possible after landing is also important.

 
 © Lufthansa Technik
 Engine washing is another important fuel saving measure

"Having a programme to identify ways to save fuel is very important," Britchford says. "But it is not just about introducing these ideas, it is also about being able to track them accurately and having the data to demonstrate their benefit."

Most airlines have a fuel-saving programme but there is a lack of data in the sector, partly because it comes from many different sources, including the aircraft, the flight planning data and the flight data management system. All this information has to be tied together. To facilitate this, ETS Aviation has linked up with Aerobytes to offer a fuel-saving programme that identifies opportunities to cut costs and also tracks the amount of savings made.

In an era where the airline industry consists of a large number of small fleets, rather than the previous model of a few carriers having a large number of aircraft, creating a system to measure and monitor fuel use can be expensive for an airline, Britchford adds.

However, airlines now have to collect data to be compliant with the EU ETS which the industry will be subject from 2012.

"There is a gap," says Britchford. "Airlines have paid all this money for fantastically efficient fleets but are they using them as efficiently as they can - and do they have the information to prove it?"

Learn how aircraft engineers are turning to nature to design more fuel-efficient aircraft, at flightglobal.com/biomimicry