Arlo Mudgett: The View from Faraway Farm: Aircraft pollution improvements too little, too late?

I've written about my fascination with the website "Flight Radar 24." Since I began looking at that website, just to see what is flying over my home, I have made other observations as well.

One of those observations is the incredible amount of air traffic that is transiting the North Atlantic. At 10 p.m. on any given evening, there are virtual "air trains" making their way across the ocean from the U.S. to Europe. You can count dozens of commercial aircraft all on the same flight path in multiple trains hundreds of miles long. At a minimum, there are two fan jet engines spewing C02 into the upper atmosphere, and on the larger aircraft, there are four. None of this takes into account the military aircraft that are among them because you can't see them on Flight Radar 24. In the morning the whole air train scenario is burning its way from Europe to the U.S. So the pollution is flowing 24/7/365.

You can look up the amount of air pollution being placed into the atmosphere and see numbers like 4% for commercial aviation. Doesn't seem like much but its the delivery system that seems to make it so bad. All of the C02 and any unburned hydrocarbons are being direct injected into the atmosphere at thirty to forty thousand feet above the earth. According to the David Suzuki Foundation, the estimated climate impact of aircraft is two to four times greater than the effect of their carbon dioxide emissions alone. To my way of thinking that's instant pollution, no waiting. Here's the thing. Due to demand and increased air traffic, the pollution issue is growing at a rapid rate. Some estimates claim as much as an 83% increase in recent years.

Back to the military aircraft. Ask anyone who has purchased a surplus vehicle or airplane and they'll tell you that fuel consumption was never something the military worried about. Most of those engines are inefficient pollution pumps. There's probably no way of knowing just how much they contribute to air pollution but common sense would indicate that it's not insignificant.

We had one event that significantly impacted air travel in a major way that was completely unexpected. Immediately after 9/11, all private and commercial air traffic ceased over the U.S. It was eerie. You'd hear nothing, see nothing, and it went on long enough that folks were thinking "hey, this is actually kind of nice. Peaceful. Quiet." It was a step back in time and it created a stark contrast. Air traffic. No air traffic. Clear skies.

Yet there's no going back. Air travel is a modern miracle. It isn't going anywhere but it has to adapt. 9/11 was a wake-up call for aviation and it is changing from top to bottom. There is a whole new generation of more efficient engines being worked into fleets worldwide. There are new noise pollution standards as well. We can expect our aircraft to pollute less and do it with less noise, but will it be enough? I don't think so. It's too little and it may be too late.

Jet engines are incredibly reliable devices. They lift huge loads and propel them through the air at incredible speeds and the failure rate is extremely low. The cost for all that reliability is fuel consumption. There is a limit to how efficient they can be made. That means new technology, just like in the auto industry. The problem with that is the old learning curve with the introduction of tested but not real-life proven technology. It's not going to be like Tesla with electric power because electric motors simply won't cut it. Solar powered aircraft just are not feasible with the technology we currently have.

It's just my opinion, but I don't see us making any significant progress in reducing global warming without addressing the pollution produced by air travel. So I heard that it has been proven that teletransportation will actually work, just like on Star Trek. Maybe that's our future, scrambling all of our molecules individually and transporting them thousands of miles only to be reassembled at the end of the trip. Who knows? I guess the answer is still in the clouds.

Arlo Mudgett's Morning Almanac has been heard over multiple radio stations in Vermont for nearly 30 years, and can be tuned in at 92.7 WKVT Monday through Saturday mornings at 8:35 a.m. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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