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Perfect Flight combines data from various operators and optimises flight paths for a more environmentally friendly airspace

Published on 3.1.2022

Last edited on 23.1.2022

Did you know that CO2 emissions from aviation fuel constitute one of the greatest environmental impacts of air traffic? Route planning can have a major impact on fuel consumption at various stages of a flight, without compromising on expediency. How does the Perfect Flight project support development of the world’s most environmentally friendly airspace? What data did test flights yield, and how do they relate to a broader global goal?

The purpose of the Perfect Flight project, jointly run by Finnair and Fintraffic Air Navigation Services, is to reduce fuel and CO2 emissions by finding ways of optimising flight paths for environmental benefit.

“There are multiple factors that contribute to planning and executing a flight with as little fuel consumption and CO2 emissions as possible. The purpose of the survey was to explore whether the views of Fintraffic Air Navigation Services match those of our customers and to consider how we could support our customers in achieving the most environmentally friendly air traffic possible,” explains Osmo Liimatainen, project manager at Fintraffic Air Navigation Services.

The environmental load can be influenced through flight planning, execution and arrival. Every flight involves multiple decisions that have an impact on fuel consumption, and although the effect of these may seem minor for any individual flight, the cumulative effect of thousands of flights per year is substantial. Achieving the most fuel-efficient flight possible requires cooperation among various parties and sharing important data with everyone instead of each operator optimising their own operations based on their own data.

Cause-and-effect relationships sought in data collected on test flights

Two test flights were carried out early on in the project, one flown from Helsinki to Kittilä and the other from Ivalo to Helsinki. The airline was allowed to plan the route quite freely, the only constraints being flight plan restrictions such as those caused by exercise grounds of the Defence Forces. Data was collected on those flights in Fintraffic systems and in the systems of Finnair and other organisations involved.

“We analysed the data for cause-and-effect relationships and devised a scheme for indicators, the most important of which were distance, time, fuel and CO2. On the test flights, optimising the route brought no significant saving in time, but it did cut 6 km in distance, 100 kg in fuel consumption and 300 kg in CO2 emissions.

The most direct route is not always the most energy efficient, because wind has a significant impact on fuel consumption. Sometimes it is more advantageous to fly a longer route with a tailwind rather than fly the shortest or fastest route with a headwind. With a tailwind, fuel consumption is lower but there is no reduction in speed. Thus, the wind component should be considered when seeking the most fuel-efficient routing for any flight. On intercontinental flights, wind is an even more significant factor.

“Winds change every day. This should be considered in route planning so that air navigation services can enable routes that are the most efficient in environmental terms yet without compromising the airspace or the safety of air traffic. This is closely connected to the smooth flow of air traffic, which is one of the core elements in the Fintraffic Air Navigation Systems strategy. Having said that, the environmental aspect must nevertheless be considered in such a way that it does not cause problems for air traffic control, for instance because of congestion. Predictability and harmonising airspace use with third parties must be planned so as not to disrupt the smooth flow of scheduled traffic,” Liimatainen explains.

Creating a global panel of indicators and boosting cooperation in the aviation industry

Much has been done regarding the optimisation of flight paths from the environmental perspective in Finland. Now the aim is to challenge other aviation operators around the world to do the same.

“We aim to create a global panel of indicators with which we can lay down challenges to other operators in the industry worldwide to take action to make air traffic more environmentally friendly and economically more advantageous. For this, we need strong cooperation between various bodies and data generated by various organisations. With a clearly defined panel of indicators, we can monitor developments, train personnel and disseminate information to compare results to our project,” says Liimatainen.

Fintraffic Air Navigation Systems is currently building a model with the Finnair flight planning department to automate the Perfect Flight model instead of having to do manual calculations. The ultimate goal is to calculate how close to optimum flights it is possible to get in practice. This involves analysing the process of a flight into its elements and examining these questions: What causes environmental loading? Are there any particular recurring circumstances contributing to that loading? Which stages in the process could potentially be improved? As the analysis becomes increasingly accurate, a service package can be devised.

“Perfect Flight is an excellent example of exceptionally fine collaboration where data is leveraged to benefit the entire industry. The project has allowed us to learn from each other and to work towards a greater cause. Yet this is not just an individual project; it is the future of aviation and as such requires constant improvement. First we will take command of the data and learn how to use them for this purpose. Then we will look at developing the details,” Liimatainen concludes.