US airline uses AI to guide planes, eliminates plastic to reduce carbon footprint

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Alaska Airlines pushes toward a green future.

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Most people don’t know when passengers board an Alaska Airlines flight, but according to the airline, that plane is lighter than other Boeing 737s or Airbus A320s.

That’s because during the COVID-19 pandemic, the airline used travel slowdowns to develop, test and introduce new products to replace the plastics on board.

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Plastic water bottles and plastic cups are gone. Lightweight alternatives are being used. Food containers have been redesigned. Not only does this allow the airline to cut down on the use of plastics, which can take more than 400 years to decompose in the environment, but the airline says the less onboard weight means it’s burning less fuel. saving money and reducing carbon production.

Airlines and aircraft manufacturers have a fairly new and very respectable focus on going green. United Airlines is promising to go carbon neutral by 2050. Alaska Airlines says it will be carbon neutral by 2040. Other airlines promise to pay to offset their carbon output.

Last week, United flew the first commercial airliner with passengers using a 100% sustainable fuel made from sugar water and corn. Fuels produce very little carbon but cost much more than conventional fuels. United’s Boeing 737-MAX 8 demonstration flight took off from Chicago to Washington DC

Efforts at onboard airlines combined with efforts by aircraft maker Boeing are leading to a seismic shift in the airline industry. It wasn’t that long ago that the smell of jet fuel was a normal part of the airport experience. Between the sustainable fuel, electric and hydrogen airplanes that are in development and reducing overall fuel use, the industry pledges it is trying to cut exhaust from aircraft engines and let it into the environment.

Boeing’s Flight Laboratory

ABC News recently got access to a flight lab that Boeing calls EcoDemonstrator. Boeing borrows brand new airliners before delivering them to a carrier. It isolates each aircraft of its normal interior and sets up a flight test with computers, racks of cables and wires, and sensors around the aircraft. For at least a few more weeks, the current EcoDemonstrator is aboard a new Boeing 737-MAX, which will soon have regular interior installed and delivered to the airline that ordered it. But for now, engineers and scientists are able to test all kinds of technology that could soon make flying green.

“The EcoDemonstrator program has been around for almost a decade,” program manager Rae Luters explained to ABC News while on board the plane. “We take innovative technologies out of the lab, put them on an airplane and fly them around to really help us explore our learning and understanding of sustainable technologies.”

The special wingtips now seen on Boeing aircraft, called split scimitar winglets – the V-shaped ends of the wings on newer aircraft – are a direct result of an idea that was tested on previous EcoDemonstrators and has been shown to save fuel and improve performance. was shown to improve. Winglets are now part of aircraft flying all over the world.

On the current EcoDemonstrator, Boeing teams are testing items such as wall panels made from additional carbon fiber from the Boeing 777, which they hope will be lighter and quieter. They are also testing new lower profile warning lights that will put less drag on the aircraft and in turn burn less fuel. And they’re working on new touchscreens in the cockpit and air sensor equipment to test air quality at airports globally when planes land.

The current EcoDemonstrator is flying around the world with sensors and computers to determine if they will help make the plane green.

“We’re trying to operate the airplane as efficiently as possible,” Luters said.

getting rid of plastic on board

Down the road from Boeing Field at its new high-tech headquarters in front of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Alaska Airlines is also trying out new ideas to cut weight and fuel burn. By eliminating plastic water bottles and cups in November, the airline said it would save the weight of 18 Boeing 737s each year. This is a feat that no other major airline in America has done. Alaska is the first airline to team up with premium brand Boxed Water to serve water from milk carton-like containers instead of plastic bottles.

“The biggest issue we had was single-use plastics,” said Todd Treynor-Corey, guest products manager for Alaska Airlines. “Even if you have the best recycling program possible, a percentage of that plastic is going to end up in landfills and even the ocean. Being based on the West Coast, the ocean Life and stability are really important to us.”

During the pandemic, the airline went through a lengthy process of recruiting alternatives to plastic bottles. They did a taste test and asked for feedback from staff and passengers. Eventually, they settled on Boxing Water.

“It’s a very visible change. It’s not an independent change. With it comes a cost. We’re a premium water that’s out there in the industry and Alaska saw that we’re doing better. Our lifecycle analysis shows that.” Super big kudos to Alaska for moving beyond plastics and cartons and driving the change,” said Darin Kuipers, founder and CEO of Boxed Water.

The iconic plastic cup that used to sit on the passenger tray table is now gone from Alaska Airlines. It’s trying to find a simple paper cup that fits the needs of the airline as its planes fly around North America.

“We really partnered to find a more durable cup and we just sourced a simple paper cup meant for both cold and hot liquids,” said Treynor-Corey, showing off the cup.

For months, different paper cups were tested with different liquids. Most travelers wouldn’t know that so much work went into turning it into a paper cup. The work is still going on. They have yet to find a biodegradable plastic cup that may contain hard alcohol.

Many alcoholics eat through the paper, which they found was an issue on their planes.

Using artificial intelligence to guide planes

Alaska Airlines’ efforts aren’t stopping what flight attendants are serving on board. The airline is now using an artificial intelligence (AI) program called Flyways that can suggest routes for passengers to their destinations faster, smoother and with less fuel burning.

“Flyway is probably the most exciting thing I’ve found in airline technology for as long as I can remember,” said Pasha Saleh, head of corporate development at Alaska Airlines.

Saleh is also a pilot for Alaska.

Alaska Airlines has teamed up with a Silicon Valley startup to develop Flyway using AI uniquely to suggest the best way to route aircraft. Airline dispatchers are given tips on how and where to fly. They can accept or reject what the AI ​​is suggesting. As the weeks and months go by using Flyways, the platform continues to get better at its suggestions due to machine learning in AI

“We found this company called Airspace Intelligence, and at the time we met them, there were only two people. Two people backed by Google,” Saleh explained. At the time, Airspace Intelligence was developing software to better route vehicles on the ground. There was a feeling that the technology could work in the air.

By analyzing multiple sources, the platform can predict what the weather, air traffic and other aspects affecting flight will be when aircraft arrive in any region of the country. For example, choose to delay a flight by two or three minutes knowing that three hours in Oklahoma will help avoid thunderstorms or help the flight avoid gridlock in landing patterns in New York. which will waste time and fuel.

“The flyway will, in many cases, reduce flight length, therefore reducing fuel burn and reducing emissions,” said Diana Birkett Rako, senior vice president of sustainability at Alaska Airlines.

During a six-month pilot program at Alaska Airlines, Flyways shaved an average of five minutes off flights and saved 480-thousand gallons of jet fuel.

“If you went a little slower, you were on time, you had a gate, and because you went a little slower, the airplane actually burned less fuel, this guest And the operation can be a win/win combination for both and the stability effect,” Rakow said.

The airline said Flyway is also quite good at helping flights avoid turbulence by analyzing a lot of weather data and providing easy flights.

According to Saleh, “this is what the machines are really good at, taking huge data sets and putting them together.”

The Alaska Airlines team says the benefits are enormous and they want other airlines to come onboard with Flyway because it will help make the aviation system safer, faster and more environmentally friendly.

Mixed response from environmental groups

Yet environmental groups are mixed on the efforts.

The Environmental Defense Fund has collaborated with the Rocky Mountain Institute to form the Sustainable Fuels Aviation Buyers Alliance. Some of the world’s biggest companies have agreed to join EDF’s initiative to help make sustainable fuels more available and cost-effective for airlines to buy.

“The airline is definitely heading in the right direction,” Kim Carnahan, the secretariat chief of the Sustainable Fuels Aviation Buyers Alliance, told ABC News.

Carnahan, America’s former chief negotiator for climate change, said airlines are in a difficult position because sustainable products cost so much more than conventional fuels.

“They compete fiercely with each other and have very low margins. The only option they really have to fully decarbonize sustainable aviation fuel is anywhere between two to four times the cost of fossil jet fuels. is,” according to Carnahan.

But at Greenpeace, the organization believes what the industry is doing is so-called “greenwashing.” It doesn’t believe that such solutions are viable…

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