Captain Joe Burns, United's managing director-technology and flight test, helps increase the energy efficiency—and reduce the environmental footprint—of United's fleet
Author Rod O’Connor Photography United Airlines Creative Services
PERHAPS NO OTHER industry is more motivated to increase efficiency than commercial aviation. With fuel by far the industry’s largest expense and the environment a top concern, airlines have every incentive to operate cleaner and greener.
Consider how the volatility of fuel prices has impacted aviation’s No. 1 cost: While airlines used the same amount of fuel in 2008 as they did in 2003, the total bill was $42 billion higher due to price volatility.
The good news, despite dramatic price increases and continued volatility, is that the industry is taking advantage of the latest technological advances. As a result, airlines are more than twice as efficient today—with the ability to carry passengers and cargo twice as far on a gallon of jet fuel—as they were in the late 1970s.
“That’s a big deal,” says Captain Joe Burns, United’s Managing Director, Technology and Flight Test. “And within United and throughout the industry, we are always looking for ways we can get even better.”
Over the years, United has led the charge to reduce fuel burn and emissions. It is a strong advocate for moving to the next generation air transportation system or “NextGen.” This project would modernize the nation’s current ground-based air traffic control system using state-of-the-art satellite technologies and procedural innovations under the direction of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
“We prefer to call it ‘NowGen,’” Burns says, “because the need is now, not later.”
In fact, modernization is one of the biggest single issues for the airline industry today, and with strong support from the FAA and Congress, the project could be accelerated to reduce delays, improve fuel efficiency and ultimately lower emissions by about 12 percent.
Meanwhile, United continues to take advantage of these new technologies and procedures within the confines of the current air traffic control system. For example, in November 2008, United was the first U.S. carrier to participate in the Asia and South Pacific Initiative to Reduce Emissions (ASPIRE). By utilizing up-to-the minute fuel data, priority take off clearance, new arrival procedures and other techniques, a single test flight from Sydney to San Francisco—a joint program with the FAA—saved 1,564 gallons of fuel and 32,656 pounds of carbon emissions.
Many of the procedures showcased during that flight are currently in use by United, including Tailored Arrivals, which generate fuel savings through an idled, continuous descent during landings. “A jet burns a lot of fuel during descent, so fuel usage is significantly reduced by turning the landing into a continuous glide toward descent instead of a series of graduated steps,” Burns explains. “You get a more efficient and quieter arrival.”
Later this month, United will participate in the Green Corridor program to demonstrate and analyze environmental benefits over the North Atlantic using the latest operational and technological advancements—the only U.S. airline selected to do so.
United is also cutting emissions through the use of plane winglets, devices which extend the wings’ surface to cut down on induced drag. The company’s Boeing 747s and Airbus fleets already have winglets or wingtip fins, and the Boeing 757s are being modified to include the technology as well.
Making these efficiencies a reality has required an investment in technology both in the cockpit and on the ground, including new flight management systems and upgrades to GPS, or global positioning systems. It’s up to Burns and his flight test team to help design and acquire this new whiz-bang technology, while ops performance staff tracks and monitors to ensure the real efficiency gains are achieved. A technology enthusiast, Burns holds an undergraduate engineering degree and a M.B.A. in management from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He’s also a pilot on the Airbus 319/320 aircraft.
“I’m an engineer who loves to fly airplanes,” he says. “It’s my job, and that of every every United employee, to get our customers to their destinations safely and on time, and to do so in the most efficient way possible.”
One of the technology programs Burns is most excited about is Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), a NextGen-endorsed replacement for conventional radar. While in the air, ADS-B allows pilots and air traffic controllers to “see” and direct aircraft with more precision than ever before. “Right now, planes have to stay on the same pathways,” Burns explains. “But this technology allows the pilot and the dispatch team to see where the traffic is and make decisions in the air based on optimal flight paths.” Not only is optimal aircraft routing achieved, fuel burn is reduced as a result, and flight delays are, too.
United pilots and dispatchers now go through fuel-efficiency training, studying the new technologies, and adopting new practices—taxiing the runway on one engine instead of two, for instance, and using less fuel on the ground by taking advantage of electricity at the gates—that can make a big difference.
Another major part of the puzzle is the development of viable alternative fuels. On this front, United is pursuing multiple solutions. The airline is already using biodiesel fuel in its ground support equipment at several airports and is looking to purchase synthetic fuel and biofuel for use in aircraft beginning in 2012.
The biggest impact on the company’s long-term fuel agenda will come from United’s recently announced purchase of 25 new 787-8 Dreamliner aircraft from Boeing. With an expected delivery between 2016 and 2019, at the same time United retires its international Boeing 747s and 767s, this investment will bring technology advances that can reduce fuel burn and emissions by up to 33 percent per aircraft.
“Safety is first and foremost in everything we do,” says Burns. “And the next generation technologies and systems we have in place today, and are supporting going forward, have the potential to make our operation and the air traffic control system safer for our customers and our employees.”
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