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Don’t Burn This

Joel Booth’s work on fuel efficiency helps save the planet—along with a whole lot of money

Author A. Averyl Re

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“It’s expensive. It makes a huge impact on the environment. And we use a lot of it: four billion gallons a year.”

Joel Booth, managing director of network operations planning, standards and efficiency, is talking about fuel and how United can go farther using less, a goal to which he has dedicated himself for years. “Anything we can do to use less fuel favorably affects the environment, profitability and the efficiency of the business.”

The airline set a goal to reduce fuel expenses by $1 billion a year. Considering United, with one of the world’s broadest route networks, is expanding that network, such drastic fuel savings may seem difficult to achieve.

Yet Booth and his team, working with other departments around the company, have already seen progress. “Our annual consumption is going down,” he says. “We aim to fly more efficiently as we go forward. A big piece is being mindful not only of the costs of fuel, but also of the environmental impact of burning it.”

Last year, United exceeded its goal of saving more than 85 million gallons of fuel, at the same time eliminating 828,000 metric tons of CO2; it has improved fuel efficiency by 32 percent since 1994. The company has a multi-phased plan of action to further curtail fuel consumption. Two-thirds of that plan involves changing out or modifying airplanes to increase efficiency. The airline has been replacing older, less efficient aircraft with newer, more energy-efficient, environmentally friendly planes, such as the Boeing 787 and 737-900, as well as Embraer 175s for regional service.

“Our fleet team excels at balancing our capacity needs with fuel efficiency. Every time we replace a plane, the new one is at least 15 percent more efficient,” Booth says. Existing aircraft also get their share of energy-saving modifications, with projects such as split-scimitar winglet installations on 737s. The first of these planes took to the skies in February, and the airline plans to have 60 planes outfitted by the end of 2014. On the same fleet, United also has been replacing steel brakes with carbon ones weighing 700 pounds less—less weight equals less fuel burn. The airline is also installing performance-improvement packages on several of its Boeing 777s. When finished, the company will realize a 1 percent improvement in fuel efficiency. That number seems minimal, yet that 1 percent translates to 7.2 million fewer gallons of fuel expended per year, with a corresponding 69,510 metric-ton reduction in emissions, for an annual savings of more than $20 million.

The remaining third of the annual fuel savings involves improving operations, such as reducing the use of the Auxiliary Power Units (APUs). “The APU is a smaller engine to provide power and air when the big engines aren’t working,” Booth explains. “The less we use APUs, the more fuel we save. We cut APU use by making sure we have power and air on the ground so that we can plug into that instead.”

Another example of improving operations involves flight planning and execution. “We make sure we create efficient flight plans,” Booth says. “We are putting into place a new flight-planning system that utilizes the most efficient routing, altitudes and speeds for our flights,” thus optimizing the fuel burned.

Booth had fuel and making the most of resources on his mind even before beginning his career as a pilot at the airline in 1997, after flying planes for the military. At United, between flying and fuel efficiency, he worked in other divisions, where he learned the day-to-day challenges of running a safe, clean, reliable operation.

“I have worked with a lot of really smart people in the military and at United to learn about leadership, about fuel efficiency and about how to do the best with what we’ve got,” he says. “It’s an approach of continuous improvement—always looking to get better at what we do every day.”

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