ASPIRE to perfection

Last month I promised to return to talking a bit more about my recent trip to Asia, Australia and New Zealand. During those visits, something that always seemed to come up was the environment, and questions about what the aviation industry is doing to reduce its overall 2% carbon footprint.

Well the answer is our industry is doing a lot. Sustainable bio-fuels, composite technology, new aerodynamic designs and air traffic management advancements are just a few of the focus areas.

Just today, Boeing and Air New Zealand announced that they’re going to be conducting a sustainable biofuels test flight next month using a 747-400. That will be an important step toward certification and viability for biofuels.

Speaking of Air New Zealand, a recent 777-200ER flight from Auckland to San Francisco was another good step in the right direction. They named this flight “ASPIRE 1.” That stands for Asia and South Pacific Initiative to Reduce Emissions. But Air New Zealand simply calls it “the perfect flight.”


An Air New Zealand 777-200ER flew “the perfect flight” on September 12.

The ASPIRE 1 flight focused on three areas where fuel and emissions could be reduced – an optimized departure in which the aircraft moved from the gate to the runway as quickly as possible; an optimized, collaborative oceanic trajectory in which the aircraft flew the most direct, fuel-efficient route possible; and an oceanic “Tailored Arrival” that produced a low-power, continuous descent approach in which the aircraft glided smoothly to the runway with minimal power.

What made the approach a Tailored Arrival is that controllers were able to look over the aircraft’s flight path from the top of descent to landing and “tailor” it to avoid conditions that might have slowed it down.

The Tailored Arrivals approach procedure was developed by Boeing. Air New Zealand’s chief pilot estimates that this approach saved ASPIRE 1 about 700 liters (182 gallons) of fuel on its approach into San Francisco.

Overall, ASPIRE 1 used 4% less fuel than it normally would – taking into account the entire flight from departure to landing. That’s a 1,200 gallon fuel savings, which by my calculations reduces carbon emissions by well over 10 tonnes.

Boeing Advanced Air Traffic Management as well as Air New Zealand, United Airlines, Qantas, Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways, the FAA and NASA have completed more than 600 Tailored Arrivals in limited operations of the concept at San Francisco International Airport since last December.

And all of this has led to some impressive results. Fuel savings for full Tailored Arrivals at SFO have averaged between 34% and 39% (on the portion of the flight from top of descent to landing, and depending on aircraft type). Carbon emissions have been reduced by more than 500,000 pounds, according to Boeing and FAA estimates.

The ASPIRE program’s second flight took place on October 22 – a Qantas A380 from Los Angeles to Melbourne. A third flight is coming up later this week - November 14 – a United Airlines 747 flight from Sydney to San Francisco.

You may have noticed that both Boeing and Airbus airplanes are involved. That’s right. ASPIRE and other initiatives can only truly make a difference when Boeing, Airbus, and the entire industry get together to reduce our impact on the environment.

Comments (10)

Dietrich Schuschel (Mesa):

This is a great story about cooperation with our competitor as we all recognize the greater good, and put aside our rivalry to achieve that.

Kudos to the people involved, and to Boeing and Airbus. I hope this story gets more coverage in the general media.

I wonder which analysis method is being used - perhaps Lean+, RCCA, etc could dig up even more efficiencies?

TC (Mt. Vernon, WA):

One more suggestion, clear the tarmac, turn off the engines when they hit the runway. Coast in, until the aircraft comes to a full and complete stop at the gate.

Chris C (South Africa):

Well done to Boeing, Airbus and some of the world’s leading airlines, for aspiring to enhance the use of bio-fuels in commercial airplane travel. The data so far from the bio-fuel flights has been very promising indeed.

Air travel is essential to the world’s economies, and therefore, the need to continually improve on the fuel usage/fuel type/fuel quantities/fuel burn/ fuel efficiencies on commercial airplanes, amongst a whole host of items, is absolute paramount. “We all recognize that air transportation plays a vital role in continued global economic growth. Eight percent of the world’s growth in gross domestic product can be directly attributed to air travel, making it essential to the global economy,” commented Scott Carson, BCA President and CEO. Scott also went on to further highlight other aspects:

“We have a strong environmental track record as an industry. During the past 40 years, we’ve reduced noise by 75 percent. We’ve reduced carbon dioxide (CO2) intensity by 70 percent. We’ve virtually eliminated hydrocarbon emissions and soot. Still, aviation’s carbon footprint today is 2 percent of global CO2 emissions, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and we must be part of a solution that addresses the environmental impact of our industry,” remarked Carson further.

I urge readers to view the latest BoeingAero Q4 Magazine. The article by Scott Carson on environmental issues is excellent.

Clearly, with next generation, 21st Century products like the super-efficient 787 Dreamliner, 747-8I/-8F, 777 and 737NG, Boeing is making excellent strides to deliver the most advanced, fuel-efficient airplanes around. Considering the -8I is flying more passengers, more cargo and being significantly heavier than a -400, it is flying faster and further all while burning 16% less fuel/passenger…phenomenal. Keep up the innovation Boeing…innovation is key to success, and you’ve got it.

Paulo M (Johannesburg, RSA):

That's great - see, being on time isn't just good for passengers, it benefits the environment too! Taking intelligent steps now to curb - or eliminate entirely - emissions is the smart move.

But 2%. Small - tiny - if you ask me. I think the real problem is the growth of the emissions from the air transport industry - which research shows is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gases. Boeing - and Airbus - expect the in service fleet to double over a 20 year period - say between 2004 and 2024.

Take into account increased economic - industrial and both land-based and air transport activity in much of the developing world, particularly the BRIC countries and other countries such as South Africa and Mexico. And let's not forget the economic activity in advanced economies will rebound and show good growth going forward. Air transport's share of emissions remains in the low single digits.

The world is burning around 150,000 litres of fuel per second - in addition to the combustion of other fossil fuels. The reality is that we're simply burning too much - and it is unsustainable from the point of view that we're going to run out of the stuff pretty early in our history, and because the planet simply cannot survive the sustained abuse.

Because of the nature of the business, airplane manufacturers tend to be better with fuel efficiency than the autos. The Detroit car manufacturers are now attempting what Boeing has been doing with ETOPS, with better, lighter, more aerodynamic designs, with the 787, over 35 to 50-plus years - across their product lines, in a really messy downturn, in a really short period of time. It is like what Phil Condit said about having the largest spring cleaning in town: not something to be incredibly proud of, and, the same as trying to change your car's tyres while doing 60mph.

Norman (Long Beach, California, United States):

I am glad to see airlines and manufacturers get serious about alternative fuels that burn cleaner. I hope to see other airlines, especially those in the US use programs like ASPIRE to help reduce the emission footprint on the environment.

Steve Johnson (Weston, FL):

I'm a 777 Captain for American Airlines. Your recent post about Air New Zealand's ASPIRE flight made it sound like something new and innovative....but I've been doing the very same thing for YEARS. Ever since I started flying gliders years ago, I've become much more energy-conscious and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that flying gliders has made me a better transport pilot. You're just naturally thinking about the energy-state all the time.

My personal best is a "final glide" to use a glider terminology, of 170 nautical miles. Yes, that's right, an idle descent from 170 miles out. We were flying the LAX-MIA flight and had climbed to FL430 to find a smooth ride. At top-of-descent as I was pulling the throttles to idle (I almost always hand-fly all departures to top of climb and arrivals from top of descent)I glanced down and saw the DME locked on to the 8R localizer, 170 NM out. Fortunately the ATC system allowed an uninterrupted descent and I was able to manage energy to get configured for landing and spool the engines up for landing at 1,000' and 3 miles out on final. We DID have some tailwind during the apporach to help push us along, but I don't know of a longer glide in any transport airplane.

I've even managed to do an idle descent into Buenos Aires while doing a full turn in holding. Once it became apparent that a delay was necessary, I slowed from normal descent speed of around 300 knots to "top bug" around 220, which reduced the rate of descent considerably. With the lower descent rate, it stretched the glide and I managed to do a full turn in holding at idle descent. We were then cleared for the approach and I was still a little high, but a touch of speed brake stabilized the flight path and once again I was configured for landing and had the engines spooled up at 1,000'.

One Christmas morning about 3 years ago I was able to do the same thing at London Heathrow. Since it was a world-wide holiday, many flights had been cancelled and instead of the usual 10-to-20 minute hold at Ockham we breezed right in. This time we were high due to the expectation of holding, but the combination of Flaps 5 and speed about 170 with speed brakes deployed creates a descent rate of about 2,500 feet per minute and greatly steepens the arrival flight path...once again, meeting the goal of spooling up the engines at 1,000'.

I'm hopeful that one day the ATC system will be more cooperative in efforts to reduce fuel burn...


I just read the message left by the AA 777 Captain and I must say, I'm really impress by it. I'm not a pilot, but one can see that this is something that should be done as he had proved more than once. It's really something that airlines, industries, governments and passengers should all strive to get the best economies out of airplanes, and all forms of travel. The planet deserve that we do more to keep clean and beautifull!

Paulo M (Johannesburg, RSA):

Wow! That comment by Steve Johnson with American Airlines - awesome! Just goes to show that the spirit of innovation and creativity lives on in the aviation community. Is that grassroots innovation and creativity?

I think the push by the manufacturers, by NASA & the FAA is to highlight obvious ways of saving fuel. And that current ATC holding patterns are not the most efficient way to fly.

alex (seattle, wa):

I'm sorry for being ignorant but why do we even have holding patterns if every large transport aircraft files an IFR flight plan which is approved by the FAA before the flight?

Can't the FAA just plug the numbers into a computer to calculate ETA given the current weather (wind speed and direction) and then give you a time slot for arrival on a first come first serve basis? No holding pattern necessary, just leave the gate on time for your slot to takeoff, make minimal throttle adjustments during cruise achieving the best fuel performance while staying on time, and then glide in as much as safety allows, done.

If you miss your departure gate for some reason, (last minute bag, passenger, maintenance failure, etc.) you lose your slot and have to get a new one. Shut down the engines and head back to the gate and be on time next time. Or wait for an open slot to takeoff and expect to enter a holding pattern when you get there to give precedence for those who are on time and gliding in! Hits the airline right in the wallet with higher fuel costs.

This would give the airlines an incentive for good maintenance and efficient ticket agents and baggage handling.

Stuart (Sydney):

Nice story. But it got me wondering . . . .

1. How do air brakes (I am assuming these the control surfaces arranged in panels on top of the wing) get their name when their primary role appears to be that they "destroy lift" and control the rate of decent ?

2. Are airbrakes used to purposely create drag to slow an aircraft ? Or, is there another control surface used to achieve this ?

3. Is drag purposely created so to maintain an engine RPM which reduces the spooling time should thrust be needed urgently ?

I have had others guess the answers to these questions, but now I would prefer to read the response from someone who pilots a commericial plane.

Thanks, Stuart

Post a comment

We welcome your comments. However all comments are moderated and may not post immediately. Offensive or off-topic comments will not be posted. We will not treat any comments you submit as confidential information. Please do not submit comments that contain any confidential information belonging to anyone else.

By submitting a comment to Randy's Journal, you agree to our site terms and privacy policy, and to having your name displayed with your comment. All or part of your comment may be posted or cited in the blog. Your name and personal information will not be used for any other purpose, and we will not publish your e-mail address.


More posts