Experts Look to Reduce Airplane Contrails


Airplane contrails | Image by Shutterstock

The white plumes that follow airplanes could be more environmentally harmful than previously thought.

Airplane “contrails,” short for condensation trails, are water vapor trails created by jets at high altitudes. A new report by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency stated they could contribute to global warming, claiming they could even be a more significant factor than carbon dioxide or other fuel emissions.

The study is part of an emerging trend in climate science known as “effective radiative forcing,” which measures total warming effects instead of total CO2 emissions.

American and Southwest Airlines are working to determine what contrails are the most harmful to the environment and if the major airlines can do anything to prevent them, per The Dallas Morning News.

Andrew Chen, an aviation specialist with the Rocky Mountain Institute, claimed air travel has almost twice the impact on global warming than previously assumed.

“The most interesting dynamic is that the airlines are not shying away from contrails,” Chen said.

American, Southwest, United Alaska, and Virgin Atlantic have partnered with the Rocky Mountain Institute to work to solve the contrail issue. Google Research and airline manufacturers Boeing and Airbus have also joined the group.

Delta Airlines has been working with researchers at MIT to study what kind of flights create the worst contrails. Still, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines have set a 2050 timeline to cut their emissions footprint to zero, even though the technology to reach that goal does not currently exist.

Despite the massive expenditures of federal taxpayer money subsidizing the wind and solar power industries, necessary battery storage technologies have not been developed, and scaling up renewable energy production remains geographically impractical, as previously reported in The Dallas Express.

Although airlines know how to avoid making contrails, they must consider several factors when creating a flight plan. They cannot always plan to avoid contrails when they would burn significantly more fuel, according to Helen Giles, Southwest Airlines’ director of environmental sustainability.

“From an operation perspective, we think we know what we can do to mitigate the impact, but we want to see the modeling before we build a plan around it,” Giles said.

American Airlines’ vice president of sustainability, Jill Blickstein, said they could avoid contrails through modest changes in flight altitude, but there are many variables to consider.

“We are at the beginning of what I expect will be a long learning process,” she said.

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