Airlines to fly less, and pollute less, in downturn

GENEVA (Reuters) - Airlines will reduce their carbon emissions by nearly 8 percent this year as they slash the number of flights they operate in line with a drop in both cargo and passenger demand, executives said on Tuesday.

A Continental Airlines Bombardier Q400 Dash 8 turboprop airplane passes over the New Jersey Turnpike on approach to the Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, March 29, 2009. REUTERS/Gary Hershorn

The airline sector was once seen as a driving force behind global warming, which is linked to the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, but the world financial crisis has taken the heat off the industry, which is keen to save fuel to reduce costs.

About 6 percent of the forecast carbon cut will come as a result of carriers flying fewer planes in 2009, and a further 1.8 percent reflects steps to improve energy efficiency, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said.

IATA Director-General Giovanni Bisignani also reported that leading carriers have run successful tests with biofuels made from plants, raising the possibility that algae and other crops could be certified to power flights as early as next year.

Continental Airlines, Japan Airlines, Air New Zealand and Virgin have all had positive results with bio-jet fuels made from algae, the non-food crop jatropha, and camelina, a type of flax.

“Certification by 2010 or 2011 is a real possibility, and the potential benefits are enormous,” Bisignani told an aviation conference in Geneva, where his industry group is based.

“A biofuel industry could be a big generator of employment and wealth for the developing world,” he said.

The economic slowdown that began in the United States and cascaded around the world has dealt a punch to airlines, which have high fixed costs and rely on executive-class passengers and business cargo to stay afloat.

Some U.S. airlines have reduced their flights in response to plummeting demand for travel and freight, and carriers in Asia and Europe are likely to make similar scheduling cuts to allay their operating costs, according to IATA, which estimates the airline industry will lose $4.7 billion this year.

“Further and larger cuts are planned but it remains difficult to do this quickly enough to keep up with the slump in demand,” it said in its latest financial outlook.

Airports are also trying to improve efficiency by revamping runway and taxiway designs, improving flight scheduling, and reducing airfield congestion that causes wasteful fuel burning, according to Angela Gittens, director-general of Airports Council International.

Such steps have been undertaken recently in Athens, Kuala Lumpur, Montreal, San Francisco and Zurich, Gittens told the aviation and environment summit, held near the Geneva airport.

Up to 100 European airports are also preparing to change their standards on how planes land, shifting to a “continuous descent approach,” or CDA, that makes for a smoother descent and cuts carbon emissions by 160 kg to 470 kg (353 pounds to 1,036 pounds) per flight.

“CDA offers significant fuel savings which have both an environmental and financial benefit to airlines,” said Alexander ter Kuile of the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization.

Editing by Stephanie Nebehay