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5 Advances That Will Change Air Travel

New plane designs, alternative fuels, flight patterns, and even airport architecture promise to shrink aviation's carbon footprint.

This article is part of our Urban Expeditions series, an initiative made possible by a grant from United Technologies to the National Geographic Society.

As the world’s middle class

expands, so does its ability to

travel. Passenger numbers are

expected to double over the next

two decades, and carbon emissions

from aviation will rise along with

them—by about 300 percent by

2050. While today’s flights emit

half as much as they did in 1990,

further savings are needed to meet

the industry’s goal of capping its

carbon emissions. Meanwhile

airlines are investing in new

technology, alternative fuels,

and operational advances.

—Kelsey Nowakowski

AVIATION’S PIVOTAL

MOMENT

In order to comply with global

climate policy and accommodate

passenger forecasts, the aviation

industry agreed to drastically

reduce emissions.

AVIATION’S CONTRIBUTION

TO CO2 EMISSIONS

13%

Transportation

If aviation were a

country, it’d be

the world’s

seventh largest

carbon emitter,

ranking above

South Korea but

under Germany.

Global CO2

emissions

Landmark Agreement Reached

in 2016

Starting in 2027, international flights will be

required to offset emissions beyond 2020

levels—either directly or by purchasing

credits. Sixty-five nations will participate.

7.2

billion

passengers

projected

3.8

2016

2035

2005

2027

Emissions

Capped

AT 2020

LEVELS

2050

Projected reduction in emissions, by

improving technology, operations, and

fuel

CLIMATE CHANGE

AND FLIGHT

The industry contributes to climate

change, and, in turn, is affected by

the shifting weather patterns it

causes. Higher temperatures and

more intense storms can lead to

travel delays.

DAMAGED RUNWAYS

Extreme heat or flooding can render

airports inoperable. In coastal and

floodplain areas, heavy storms can

submerge runways.

TEMPERATURE AT WHICH

ASPHALT SOFTENS, REDUCING

RUNWAY DURABILITY

Health issues

When airport workers are exposed

to high temperatures on the tarmac,

it can lead to heat-related illnesses

such as sunstroke.

CANCELLED FLIGHTS

In 2014 the U.S. had the highest number

of cancelled flights in 25 years due to

storms, which are predicted to be more

extreme and frequent.

Rising costs

Hurricane Sandy caused $29

million in damage to navigation

systems and infrastructure. The

storm cost the industry $190

million in earnings.

FLIGHTS CANCELLED

DUE TO HURRICANE

SANDY IN 2012

A MORE EFFICIENT

FLYING MACHINE

Planes produce less CO2 by

improving engines, enhancing

aerodynamics, and using lighter

materials. Lighter planes burn less

fuel, while alternative fuels can also

reduce emissions.

EFFICIENCY GAIN WITH

NEW PLANE MODELS

Technology has reduced CO2 emissions by over 80 percent since the first jet aircraft.

REDUCTION IN FUEL PER KM

100%

75

50

25

0

1968

'80

'90

2000

'14

LIGHTER MATERIALS

Composite materials like

carbon fiber weigh less

than metal parts.

Advanced manufacturing,

such as 3-D printing, can

also reduce the weight of

small parts.

NEXT GENERATION

ENGINES

New materials withstand higher heat, allowing more efficient fuel combustion; new gear systems for the fan and turbine enable
more thrust with less fuel.

DESIGN AND

AERODYNAMICS

Now fitted on over 8,300 planes, winglets are an example of improved design. By reducing drag, they can cut a plane’s emissions by six percent.

BIOFUELS

Alternative fuels introduce less CO2 into the atmosphere compared with refined crude oil and could reduce jet emissions by 50 to 70 percent.

OPERATIONAL GAINS

Using enhanced weather-sensing

technology and optimal altitudes

and speeds can cut down on fuel

use and CO2 output without

modifying a plane’s design.

FLEXIBLE NAVIGATION

Replacing preset flight plans with

real-time updates allows aircraft to

better avoid storms and take

advantage of favorable winds.

Continuous Climbs

and Descents

Since engines function optimally at

higher altitudes, the process of

gradually leveling off (dotted line) is

less efficient than a more direct

takeoff and landing.

AIRPORT ADVANCES

With improved airport design and

ground-control operations, airports

can reduce CO2 emissions. Over

100 airports worldwide have

installed solar panels.

LED LIGHTS

green building

standards FOR

NEW TERMINALS

SOLAR PANELS

ENGINES OFF

AT THE GATE

ELECTRIC

VEHICLES

Taxiing Time Reduced

A LARGE AIRPORT CONSUMES AS

MUCH ELECTRICITY AND THERMAL

ENERGY PER DAY AS A CITY OF

NEXT GENERATION

FLIGHT

Currently in development, a

blended wing-body (BWB) could

help lower fuel usage and

emissions. NASA says the design

could have commercial potential

around 2035.

MINIMAL LIFT PRODUCTION

LIFT PRODUCTION

TODAY’S MODEL

BLENDED WING-BODY

ADVANTAGES

The BWB version is more aerodynamic

than conventional planes as a result of its

broader wing.

LESS FUEL

BURNED

WEIGHT

REDUCTION

HIGHER LIFT-

TO-DRAG RATIO

LESS THRUST

REQUIRED

As the world’s middle class expands, so does its ability to travel.

Passenger numbers are expected to double over the next two

decades, and carbon emissions from aviation will rise along with

them—by about 300 percent by 2050. While today’s flights emit

half as much as they did in 1990, further savings are needed to meet

the industry’s goal of capping its carbon emissions. Meanwhile

airlines are investing in new technology, alternative fuels, and

operational advances. —Kelsey Nowakowski

Aviation's Pivotal Moment

In order to comply with global climate policy and accommodate passenger forecasts,

the aviation industry agreed to drastically reduce emissions.

AVIATION’S CONTRIBUTION TO CO2 EMISSIONS

If aviation were a country, it’d be the

world’s seventh largest carbon

emitter, ranking above South Korea

but under Germany.

Global CO2

emissions

13%

Transportation

Landmark Agreement Reached in 2016

Starting in 2027, international flights will be required to offset emissions beyond 2020

levels—either directly or by purchasing credits. Sixty-five nations will participate.

Emissions Capped

AT 2020 LEVELS

2027

7.2

billion

passengers

projected

2005

2050

3.8

Projected reduction in emissions, by improving

technology, operations, and fuel

2016

2035

CLIMATE CHANGE AND FLIGHT

The industry contributes to climate change, and, in turn, is affected by the

shifting weather patterns it causes. Higher temperatures and more intense

storms can lead to travel delays.

Health issues

DAMAGED RUNWAYS

When airport workers are

exposed to high temperatures on

the tarmac, it can lead to

heat-related illnesses such as

sunstroke.

Extreme heat or flooding can

render airports inoperable. In

coastal and floodplain areas,

heavy storms can submerge

runways.

TEMPERATURE AT WHICH

ASPHALT SOFTENS, REDUCING

RUNWAY DURABILITY

CANCELLED FLIGHTS

Rising costs

In 2014 the U.S. had the highest

number of cancelled flights in 25

years due to storms, which are

predicted to be more extreme and

frequent.

Hurricane Sandy caused $29

million in damage to navigation

systems and infrastructure. The

storm cost the industry $190

million in earnings.

FLIGHTS CANCELLED

DUE TO HURRICANE

SANDY IN 2012

A MORE EFFICIENT FLYING MACHINE

Planes produce less CO2 by improving engines, enhancing aerodynamics,

and using lighter materials. Lighter planes burn less fuel, while alternative

fuels can also reduce emissions.

REDUCTION IN FUEL PER KM

100%

75

EFFICIENCY GAIN WITH

NEW PLANE MODELS

50

25

Technology has reduced CO2 emissions by over 80 percent since the first jet aircraft.

0

1968

'80

'90

2000

'14

BIOFUELS

NEXT GENERATION ENGINES

Alternative fuels introduce less CO2 into the atmosphere compared with refined crude oil and could reduce jet emissions by 50 to 70 percent.

New materials withstand higher heat, allowing more efficient fuel combustion; new gear systems for the fan and turbine enable more thrust with less fuel.

DESIGN AND AERODYNAMICS

LIGHTER MATERIALS

Now fitted on over 8,300 planes, winglets are an example of improved design. By reducing drag, they can cut a plane’s emissions by six percent.

Composite materials like carbon fiber weigh less than metal parts. Advanced manufacturing, such as 3-D printing, can also reduce the weight of small parts.

OPERATIONAL GAINS

Using enhanced weather-sensing technology and optimal altitudes

and speeds can cut down on fuel use and CO2 output without

modifying a plane’s design.

FLEXIBLE NAVIGATION

TONS OF CO2

PER FLIGHT SAVED

BY USING A

FLEXIBLE

NAVIGATION

SYSTEM

Continuous Climbs

and Descents

Replacing preset flight plans with

real-time updates allows aircraft

to better avoid storms and take

advantage of favorable winds.

Since engines function optimally at higher altitudes, the process of gradually leveling off (dotted line) is less efficient than a more direct takeoff and landing.

 

AIRPORT ADVANCES

With improved airport design and ground-control operations, airports can reduce

CO2 emissions. Over 100 airports worldwide have installed solar panels.

A LARGE AIRPORT CONSUMES AS

MUCH ELECTRICITY AND THERMAL

ENERGY PER DAY AS A CITY OF

LED LIGHTS

green building

standards FOR

NEW TERMINALS

SOLAR

PANELS

ENGINES OFF

AT THE GATE

ELECTRIC

VEHICLES

Taxiing Time

Reduced

NEXT GENERATION FLIGHT

Currently in development, a blended wing-body (BWB) could help lower

fuel usage and emissions. NASA says the design could have commercial

potential around 2035.

TODAY’S MODEL

BLENDED WING-BODY

MINIMAL LIFT PRODUCTION

LIFT PRODUCTION

The BWB version is more aerodynamic than conventional planes as a

result of its broader wing.

ADVANTAGES

HIGHER LIFT-

TO-DRAG RATIO

LESS THRUST

REQUIRED

LESS FUEL

BURNED

WEIGHT

REDUCTION

As the world’s middle class expands, so does its ability to travel. Passenger numbers are

expected to double over the next two decades, and carbon emissions from aviation will rise

along with them—by about 300 percent by 2050. While today’s flights emit half as much as

they did in 1990, further savings are needed to meet the industry’s goal of capping its carbon

emissions. Meanwhile airlines are investing in new technology, alternative fuels, and

operational advances. —Kelsey Nowakowski

Aviation's Pivotal Moment

In order to comply with global climate policy and accommodate passenger forecasts,

the aviation industry agreed to drastically reduce emissions.

AVIATION’S CONTRIBUTION

TO CO2 EMISSIONS

Landmark Agreement Reached in 2016

Starting in 2027, international flights will be required to offset emissions beyond 2020

levels—either directly or by purchasing credits. Sixty-five nations will participate.

Emissions Capped

AT 2020 LEVELS

2027

7.2

billion

passengers

projected

2005

2050

13%

Transportation

If aviation were a

country, it’d be

the world’s

seventh largest

carbon emitter,

ranking above

South Korea but

under Germany.

3.8

Projected reduction in emissions, by improving

technology, operations, and fuel

Global CO2

emissions

2016

2035

CLIMATE CHANGE AND FLIGHT

The industry contributes to climate change, and, in turn, is affected by the shifting weather patterns

it causes. Higher temperatures and more intense storms can lead to travel delays.

Health issues

DAMAGED RUNWAYS

CANCELLED FLIGHTS

Rising costs

When airport workers are

exposed to high temperatures on

the tarmac, it can lead to

heat-related illnesses such as

sunstroke.

Extreme heat or flooding can

render airports inoperable. In

coastal and floodplain areas,

heavy storms can submerge

runways.

In 2014 the U.S. had the highest

number of cancelled flights in 25

years due to storms, which are

predicted to be more extreme and

frequent.

Hurricane Sandy caused $29

million in damage to navigation

systems and infrastructure. The

storm cost the industry $190

million in earnings.

FLIGHTS CANCELLED

DUE TO HURRICANE

SANDY IN 2012

TEMPERATURE AT WHICH

ASPHALT SOFTENS, REDUCING

RUNWAY DURABILITY

A MORE EFFICIENT FLYING MACHINE

Planes produce less CO2 by improving engines, enhancing aerodynamics, and using lighter

materials. Lighter planes burn less fuel, while alternative fuels can also reduce emissions.

REDUCTION IN FUEL PER KM

NEXT GENERATION ENGINES

New materials withstand higher heat,
allowing more efficient fuel combustion;
new gear systems for the fan and turbine enable more thrust with less fuel.

100%

75

EFFICIENCY GAIN WITH

NEW PLANE MODELS

50

Technology has reduced CO2

emissions by over 80 percent

since the first jet aircraft.

25

0

1968

'80

'90

2000

'14

BIOFUELS

LIGHTER MATERIALS

DESIGN AND AERODYNAMICS

Alternative fuels introduce less CO2

into the atmosphere compared with

refined crude oil and could reduce

jet emissions by 50 to 70 percent.

Composite materials like carbon

fiber weigh less than metal parts.

Advanced manufacturing, such as

3-D printing, can also reduce the

weight of small parts.

Now fitted on over 8,300 planes,

winglets are an example of

improved design. By reducing drag,

they can cut a plane’s emissions by

six percent.

OPERATIONAL GAINS

Using enhanced weather-sensing technology and optimal altitudes and speeds can cut down on

fuel use and CO2 output without modifying a plane’s design.

FLEXIBLE NAVIGATION

Continuous Climbs

and Descents

TONS OF CO2

PER FLIGHT SAVED BY

USING A FLEXIBLE

NAVIGATION SYSTEM

Replacing preset flight plans with

real-time updates allows aircraft

to better avoid storms and take

advantage of favorable winds.

Since engines function optimally at

higher altitudes, the process of

gradually leveling off (dotted line) is

less efficient than a more direct

takeoff and landing.

AIRPORT ADVANCES

With improved airport design and ground-control operations, airports can reduce CO2 emissions.

Over 100 airports worldwide have installed solar panels.

A LARGE AIRPORT CONSUMES AS

MUCH ELECTRICITY AND THERMAL

ENERGY PER DAY AS A CITY OF

green building

standards FOR

NEW TERMINALS

LED LIGHTS

ENGINES OFF

AT THE GATE

SOLAR

PANELS

ELECTRIC

VEHICLES

TAXIING TIME

REDUCED

NEXT GENERATION FLIGHT

Currently in development, a blended wing-body (BWB) could help lower fuel usage and emissions.

NASA says the design could have commercial potential around 2035.

TODAY’S MODEL

BLENDED WING-BODY

ADVANTAGES

The BWB version is more aerodynamic than

conventional planes as a result of its

broader wing.

MINIMAL LIFT PRODUCTION

LIFT PRODUCTION

LESS FUEL

BURNED

WEIGHT

REDUCTION

HIGHER LIFT-

TO-DRAG RATIO

LESS THRUST

REQUIRED