The term “as the crow flies” is often used to explain why the actual distance between two spots is shorter than the driving distance. You might think that, unlike cars, airplanes do fly in the same way crows fly, taking the most direct route between Point A and Point B, but it turns out that they don’t. Outdated air traffic control technology doing its best to maintain order in crowded skies means that planes take quite circuitous routes, particularly during takeoff and landing, resulting in widespread delays, noise pollution and greater fuel emissions.
Now that you know this problem exists (it can be hard to follow the path you’re taking through cloud cover), know that a solution is on the way. The federal government has committed $865 million toward a Next Generation Air Transportation System and different companies are developing advanced GPS technologies that would make flight navigation a lot more efficient.
Most commercial planes today must be taken through a complex, sort of stair step landing process, in which they reduce their altitude in stages: slowing down and descending a bit and then accelerating again to maintain the new altitude before air traffic control guides them through another “step” down. That’s what pilots are describing when they say they are beginning their “initial descent.” Passengers may notice this choppy slow down/speed up cycle that begins long before touchdown. It’s a time-consuming and fuel-consuming system and when the air space is really congested, planes are often directed significantly off course as they line up for their turn at this elaborate descent to the runway.
New technology made by the Kent, Washington-based Naverus, and by a subsidiary of Boeing would help flights take more direct paths by using a satellite-guided descent that smoothly takes them from cruising altitude down to the ground with a precision that air traffic control rarely achieves.
This simulated video of a flight across America offers some sense of how so-called direct flights are repeatedly subject to a change of course, but really does not capture all the waste in time and fuel that may result. A recent story on some of the new technology now being tested at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport explains in more detail how flights are often taken significantly off course.
Alaska Airlines, which is already testing the new “Optimized Profile Descent” technology, estimates that it could save 2.1 million gallons of fuel per year, just on flights approaching Seattle from the west.
Factor in more airports using this technology on multiple flight paths, and the savings multiply. Thanks to both the government’s commitment and to some entrepreneurs’ ingenuity, the savings could be right on the horizon.