Rhapsody in blue

I wanted to follow up on a previous discussion, and talk a bit about a successful third ASPIRE flight we had in mid-November. This time it was a United Airlines 747-400, making United the first U.S. carrier to demonstrate how new-generation Air Traffic Management technologies can cut carbon emissions and save fuel on trans-Pacific flights.

ASPIRE stands for “Asia and South Pacific Initiative to Reduce Emissions.” As we mentioned earlier, Air New Zealand and then Qantas flew ASPIRE missions between the west coast of the U.S. and Australia/New Zealand recently as well.

For this latest mission, United flight 870 achieved a savings of 1,564 gallons (5,290 liters) of fuel - reducing carbon emissions by 32,656 pounds (14,812 kilograms) – on a trip from Sydney to San Francisco.

It was a pretty big deal - big enough to attract California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger at the “terminator” .. I mean, final destination .. of the flight. The Governor welcomed the airplane’s arrival at SFO – and complimented United and Boeing, the FAA and other organizations for working together to make this initiative possible. These flights are real pioneering efforts to both help the environment and to make airlines more cost efficient.


Captain Rick Shay gives Governor Schwarzenegger a tutorial on Tailored Arrivals in the flight deck of a United 777 before the ASPIRE event at SFO. No word on whether the Governor’s “total recall” of the material will be tested later. (Photo courtesy: United Airlines)

The 747-400, piloted by United Captain Tom Spratt, used a number of fuel-saving and emissions reducing initiatives from gate to gate - including up-to-the-minute fuel data, priority takeoff clearance, and the opening of restricted airspace.

On approach to SFO, Captain Spratt and his crew used the Boeing-developed “Tailored Arrivals” procedure to make a smooth, continuous descent to touchdown. This takes advantage of data-link technologies to produce low-power, continuous descent approaches in which airplanes glide smoothly to runways. Controllers can look over airplane flight paths from the top of descent to landing and “tailor” them to avoid conditions that might slow them down.

Clearly, the more airlines and airports use Tailored Arrivals, the closer we get toward realizing the benefits of what’s called the NextGen System (Next-Generation Air Transportation System).

So far, Boeing and Air New Zealand, United, Qantas, Japan Airlines, ANA, Singapore Airlines, the FAA and NASA have completed more than 600 Tailored Arrivals in limited operations at San Francisco since December 2007 - saving an average of 2,100 pounds (952 kilograms) of fuel per flight for uninterrupted Tailored Arrivals and 660 pounds (299 kilograms) of fuel per flight for partial Tailored Arrivals. Over six months, that amounted to 343,000 pounds (155,582 kilograms) of fuel saved and a reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) of 1.07 million pounds (771,107 kilograms).

If you’re like me, and you care at all about our environment, those savings sound like a symphony to the ears.

Comments (12)

Norman (Long Beach, California, United States):

I think even in times of inexpensive fuel like now, it is important for airlines to take the initiative to save as much fuel as possible and to be very efficient as the era of cheap fuel is fleeting. I am glad United is the first US airline to use ASPIRE. I think US interest in ASPIRE shows that airlines like United do not need Washington to enforce environmental policy and will not ignore environmental common sense when Washington relaxes environmental policy as it has done many times in recent years.

I am glad Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has taken a leadership position on the environment, even as it has made him unpopular with the president and his party.

Paulo M (Johannesburg, RSA):

I think the current Governor of California is a great natural leader. I think he'll be back in the changing political environment.

Generally, from news published outside of the United States, the State of California, itself one of the largest economies in the world, has been a great demonstrator of what can be achieved through environmental legislation. This is not to say that California is a better State in the Union. Because, all of the States are Great. Rather, California has been in the position to show the other states that environmental laws can be economical, and can spur creativity and with that, economic growth, through better and more efficient utilization of energy and resources.

Just the same as a Boeing 777-300ER makes better use of 181,000 litres of fuel than an Airbus A340-600 does of either 194,500 litres or 204,500 litres. Obviously, if less money is spent on fuel, more can be spent elsewhere - and that is at any energy environment. It doesn't matter if it's at US$140 a barrel or at US$40 a barrel.

I think that it is fitting that these environmental trials involve the people of California.

And, I hope that these demonstrations show Boeing leadership that the way they conduct business can be improved.

Raimund Zopp (Vienna , Austria):

What the article doesn't mention is the fact that the biggest contribution to the savings was the optimized flight plan created by an ambitious United dispatcher with an innovative flight planning system from Mr. Schwarzeneggers home country.

JimmyG (Dubai, United Arab Emirates):

Emirates Airlines just completed the longest so called "green" flight with their inaugural 16 hour non-stop flight from Dubai to San Francisco using a Boeing 777-200LR. More details on the flight are available here.

Jeff (St. Louis, MO):

Great news, overall. I'm glad to see a US Airline getting involved with this sort of program.

But are the Arnold jokes really necessary? They come off forced and unprofessional.



Maybe standup comedy isn't my specialty. I guess I'll stick to my day job! Thanks for the comment.

-- Randy

Chris C (South Africa):

Well done to Boeing and the relevant parties for aspiring to develop more fuel-efficient and environmental friendly air-navigational systems/routings/departures and arrivals. Whilst there has definitely been some very encouraging results for ASPIRE, we’ve got a long way still to go to have these systems, or the likes, fully implemented. The opening of restricted airspaces may not be so easy in the long-run, but at least there’s progress being made.

Of course, as we commercial pilots know, we want to route virtually direct to our destinations immediately after departure, but if the aircraft lacks the climb performance, we maybe limited to lower levels in the airspace, burning additional fuel, having more weather conditions to contend with, and probably be requested to fly at a slower Mach number than our Econ. Airplanes that have more optimised, “clever” super-critical wings, such as the super-efficient 787 Dreamliner allow for better climb performance, reaching desired cruise altitudes quicker, thus prompting ATC to clear climb to higher levels. A fast climbing, fast cruising and high cruising airplane is the immediate requirements in today’s congested airspaces, such as Europe, America and South East Asia, and the 787, 777, 747-400 and 747-8 are the answers.

To climb faster allows for lower fuel consumption, favourable direct air routing and allows ECON cruise speed to be achieved sooner…this all ensures smooth point-to-point capabilities.

Ralph Caruthers (San Antonio, TX):

Reducing emissions via these innovative approaches is goodness. And so is reducing our use of non-renewable petroleum resources. Keep pushing biofuels!

James Tochihara (Schaumburg, Illinois):

The flight planner from Mr. Schwarzeneggers homeland is called flywise and was developed by a company called Flugwerkzeuge (www.fwz.aero) This innovative system is currently being used by United Airlines Flight Dispatchers and is transforming United into one of the most efficient airline operators in the world.


Chris C makes some valid points, but his choice of equipment to back them up is flawed.

Often I can be up at 38, 39 or even FL410 whilst competing carriers, in their 777s and 744s, flying our identical route, are stuck for a couple of hours at FL280, 290 in the case of the 744, and 310-330 in their 777s to "burn off a little weight."

The ability to climb to optimum cruise at almost max weight is there; the problem for Boeing is that the aircraft capable of doing it right now has Airbus A330-200 written on the side. Airlines acknoweldge this by way of the burgeoning 330 order book - not bad for a frame some 16 years old.

The need to get the 787 in the air is more pressing than ever, for without it, projects such as ASPIRE are mere semantics and gestures.

Chris C (South Africa):

Boeing’s technical magazine, Boeing Aero, has some excellent articles and graphics on fuel conservation techniques. Aero Magazine published in Q4 ’07 on pages 23 through to 27, has some great information on fuel conservation in cruise flight, whilst performance based navigation has been dealt with in Aero Q2 ’08 on pages 12 through to 21.

And finally, Aero Q4 ’08 on pages 25 through to 28 has some stellar information on fuel conservation in the take-off and climb. Very interesting topic to discuss, indeed.

YachtCharter Griechenland (www.pinkuin.com):

That's great, I never thought about Rhapsody in blue like that before.

Dave (Seattle):

It's tiresome to see you continually come back to the "white noise" thing. Rather than tearing down your competitor, I'm much more interested in hearing about what Boeing is doing in product development, fixing the production and engineering snafus, product enhancements and innovations in lean manufacturing and eco-technology.

Is Boeing in such fubar that you can't promote your products and business strategy and instead have to tear down the other guy?

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