London (CNN Business)Airlines are poised to reduce their emissions and reap huge fuel savings on transatlantic flights in the coming weeks as air traffic controllers experiment with giving pilots free rein to chart their own paths across skies that have been cleared out by the pandemic.
For decades, planes going between Europe and North America — one of the busiest routes globally before the pandemic with around 1,700 flights a day — have followed a handful of designated paths, forming what is essentially an invisible high altitude road network.
But reduced traffic is allowing air traffic controllers to throw out the old rules. NATS and NAV Canada, which are responsible for UK and Canadian airspace, say they won't designate specific routes on days when traffic allows, letting airlines select paths "based entirely on optimum route, speed and trajectory." The experiment, which does not have a set end date, wouldn't have been possible until recently. But improvements to the satellite systems used to monitor North Atlantic air traffic mean that controllers now have real-time data on planes over the ocean. That change, coupled with the collapse in daily transatlantic flights to just 500, means NATS can take off the guardrails.
"The dramatic fall in traffic we've seen across the Atlantic has given us a window of opportunity to do things differently, and to introduce things more quickly than otherwise might have been possible," NATS told CNN Business.
How to harness the wind
The tests could help deliver cost savings to airlines while reducing harmful emissions.
"Our hope is that analysis of these flights, together with other tabletop exercises, will give us the evidence base we need to decide on the value of more permanent changes," said NATS.
Researchers at the University of Reading in England studied 35,000 transatlantic flights last winter and found that allowing planes to take better advantage of wind patterns could reduce fuel use by up to 16% when flying East.
Michael Gill, director of environment at the International Air Transport Association (IATA), said the potential fuel savings are similar to what would be expected from upgrading to a new aircraft. "We estimate that each new generation of aircraft increases fuel efficiency by 15% to 20%, so this could be similar to introducing a next generation airliner."
"Using the jet stream more frequently and on a more permanent basis without putting safety at risk in any way would be welcomed," said Gill.
Fuel is currently the single biggest expense for airlines, at around 30% of their operating costs. They're embracing the changes following a devastating year in which the pandemic wiped out their sales.
Virgin Atlantic told CNN Business that it has already rolled out wind optimization route planning across their fleet.
United Airlines (UAL) said it looks forward "to a future of optimized flight routings to ensure faster, more comfortable, and more sustainable travel for our customers," adding that using less fuel when crossing the Atlantic will play a big part in "going 100% green by reducing 100% of our greenhouse gas emissions by 2050."
The airline sector accounts for roughly 2% of global CO2 emissions, with significant growth in that share expected over the coming decades if the overall number of flights increases dramatically.
The global aviation industry has committed to cutting emissions to half their 2005 levels by 2050. In order to do this, the sector will need to rapidly reduce its reliance on oil-based jet fueland turn increasingly to sustainable aviation fuels. But these are as yet largely untapped and much more expensive than conventional fuels.
Electric engines and more efficient aircraft have also been touted as ways to reduce the environmental harm of flying. Changes to the routes planes take could be part of the solution.
Paul Williams, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Reading, said that "upgrading to more efficient aircraft or switching to biofuels or batteries could lower emissions significantly, but will be costly and may take decades to achieve."
"Simple tweaks to flight paths are far cheaper and can offer benefits immediately. This is important, because lower emissions from aviation are urgently needed to reduce the future impacts of climate change," he added.
This article originally appeared on CNN Business