Alaska Airlines claims US airline fuel efficiency leadership after 30 per cent improvement over eight years
Mon 15 Oct 2012 – Despite an increase in fuel consumption and CO2 emissions between 2009 and 2011, Alaska Airlines decreased the intensity of its carbon emissions by 7.8% and sister airline Horizon Air by 13.4% during the period. Total carbon emissions from the airline group have decreased 3.2% in the past eight years, even though business rose by over 27%, with fuel efficiency improving 30%. The figures are contained in Alaska Air Group’s 2012 Sustainability Report, which summarises the company’s progress on environmental, economic and social goals in 2010 and 2011. Measured in fuel per revenue passenger miles, Alaska Airlines claims it is the most efficient domestic carrier in the United States as a result of aircraft replacements over the past several years and the adoption of other fuel-saving measures such as winglets and weight reductions. The two airlines’ inflight recycling programmes saw more than 800 tons of inflight waste being diverted from landfills last year.
Alaska Airlines operates an all-Boeing 737 fleet since phasing out less-efficient MD-80s in August 2008. Aircraft environmental performance has been further enhanced through aerodynamic improvements such as winglets and weight-reduction efforts. From the beginning of this year new 737-800 deliveries will include lighter-weight carpets, with carpets on existing aircraft being similarly replaced by attrition, and new 737-900ERs on order will be fitted with lightweight leather seats. The new carpet reduces aircraft weight by between 60 and 90 pounds (27-41kg), depending on aircraft type, and has the potential to conserve about 60,000 gallons of fuel per year when the project has been fully implemented. The airline has also initiated a programme to recycle the fibres of old carpets into plastic bottles. All new deliveries will have efficient mercury-free LED cabin lighting rather than fluorescent lighting.
Alaska has just announced a further order for 50 new Boeing aircraft, including 13 737-900ERs and 37 of the revamped and re-engined 737 MAX 8s and 9s, which represents the biggest order in its history. Two-thirds of the new order, plus 25 existing aircraft on order, will allow the airline to replace older aircraft in its existing 120-strong fleet.
Existing and new orders for the 737-900ER will be delivered starting this month and continue through until 2017. The first 737 MAX 8 is scheduled to enter Alaska’s fleet in 2018, followed by the first 737 MAX 9 in 2019. The 737 MAX will be equipped with the new LEAP-1B engine under development by CFM International and will also feature raked ‘dual feather’ winglets and a more aerodynamic tail cone. The aircraft is expected to be 13% more fuel-efficient than today’s most fuel-efficient single-aisle aircraft.
In 2011, Horizon Air completed its fleet transition to an all-Bombardier Q-400 turboprop fleet, which are claimed to burn 30 to 40% less fuel and produce equivalently lower emissions than comparable jets. The regional airline anticipates the fleet transition will save more than 1.3 million gallons of fuel per year.
As well as investing in new aircraft, the airline group has also introduced or expanded a number of fuel conservation projects since its last reporting year in 2009.
These include the Greener Skies partnership with the FAA, Boeing and the Port of Seattle to implement quieter, more fuel-efficient arrival routes into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The routes use satellite-based Required Navigation Performance (RNP) and Optimized Profile Descent (OPD) technology, key pieces of the FAA NextGen system, and the two airlines hope to receive FAA approval to start flying these routes regularly in 2013. The project is anticipated to save RNP-equipped airlines serving the airport more than 2 million gallons of fuel annually, which translates into a reduction of 22,400 tonnes of CO2. Noise exposure for around 750,000 people in the Puget Sound region is also expected to be reduced.
Alaska Airlines is assisting the FAA in developing OPD procedures, also known as continuous descent approaches, throughout its system. It is currently using OPD in Anchorage and is planning to expand the procedure to five more airports in the coming year.
Horizon Air is equipping its aircraft with Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) technology, which takes RNP and GPS technology a step further by using additional satellites that monitor and improve the precision and reliability of GPS signals. This complementary system to RNP allows Horizon to fly more precise approaches into every airport and enables landing in certain low-visibility weather conditions. Currently, seven of the carrier’s 48 aircraft are WAAS-equipped and the aim is to equip the remaining 41 by the end of the year. At present, WAAS technology annually conserves about 150,000 gallons of jet fuel. The RNP approaches developed for the Greener Skies programme save a further 500,000 gallons per year.
On the ground, auxiliary power unit (APU) reduction procedures are in effect at all Alaska Airlines’ stations most of the year – the exception being around a dozen rural stations in the state of Alaska, where it is impractical in winter. Using ground power, rather than APUs, to provide aircraft with heating, cooling and electricity burns 10 times less fuel, says the airline. Since 2009, when the project was expanded, an estimated 3 million gallons per year have been saved.
An APU on Demand project uses advanced technology to eliminate the need to operate the APU during flights to and from Hawaii. The FAA approved the procedure after testing showed APUs can be restarted reliably en route and has saved Alaska around 1 million gallons a year.
The phased implementation of an Improved Flight Planning project that began in 2009 is estimated to have contributed a further saving in fuel of 310,000 gallons of fuel. The goal is to provide closer prediction of actual fuel required and boarded on each flight.
Another fuel conservation procedure is to remove one catering oven from each 737, which Alaska estimates will save between 300,000 and 700,000 gallons of fuel each year. The airline is also running trials to determine the fuel efficiency of various engine-washing technologies, with final analysis expected to be completed this year.
The airline group has been a pioneer in the development and use of sustainable aviation biofuels. It has been closely involved in the Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest initiative and in November 2011 the two airlines operated 75 passenger flights powered by a 20% biofuel blend.
The flights used 30,000 gallons of used cooking oil-based sustainable biofuel blend sourced from Dynamic Fuels and brokered by SkyNRG. Alaska estimates the blend reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 134 tonnes.
Although 99% of Alaska Air Group’s carbon emissions come from burning aviation fuel, it is paying attention to reducing fuel consumption and improving the local air quality of its ground support equipment by switching from fossil fuel to electric power. Alaska Airlines has set a goal to increase motorised equipment that is electric from 10% to 20% in the Lower 48 states by the end of 2013.
The aim will be supported by the Seattle eGSE project, in which the group is partnering with the Port of Seattle to replace 200 fuel-burning vehicles such as aircraft tugs, belt loader and bag tractors over two years with electric equivalents. With airport electricity coming from clean hydropower, this is expected to eliminate 3,000 tonnes of CO2 per year.
The two airlines’ recycling of 800 tons of inflight waste last year included some 230 tons of aluminium and 185 tons of paper. Flight attendants recycled 91% of all paper, plastic, aluminium and glass generated onboard Horizon flights and 49% on Alaska flights.
However, the Sustainability Report finds that although Horizon has exceeded its recycling goals, Alaska’s efforts require improvement. An original 2009 goal of 100% diversion of inflight recyclables was not met and was reduced to 65% in 2011. An updated modified goal for Alaska requires 70% of recyclables to be collected and diverted by year-end 2012, increasing to 90% by year-end 2015. A further goal is to expand recycling efforts at all catering locations to 100% during 2012.
Horizon’s recycling lead over Alaska is due to different approaches and circumstances, says the report. Horizon has been recycling inflight waste since the 1980s and its success earned it a local business recycler of the year award in 2010. On the other hand, Alaska began its programme through a Green Team grassroots effort in 2007. To help improve rates, 95% of contracted catering kitchens have been equipped to recycle commingled materials collected by flight attendants. Recycling has also been made a service standard in the airline’s Flight Attendant Manual instead of simply encouraging it. The number of annual waste assessments have been increased to obtain accurate data and inflight serviceware products have been identified that can be replaced with organic, sustainable, recyclable or compostable alternatives.
Commenting on the publication of the report, Alaska Air Group’s CEO, Brad Tilden, said: “Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air strive to be good airlines for our customers, good places to work for our employees, a good business for our investors and environmental stewards of our planet. Our goal is that this report will help us to manage our social responsibility performance with the same discipline we manage our financial performance, which will ultimately help us grow both airlines responsibly.”
The Sustainability Report is the first by the company to conform to the Global Reporting Initiative standard.