Yesterday, Emirates Airlines launched what it calls the world's longest "green" flight — a new service from Dubai to San Francisco that saves an estimated 2,000 gallons of fuel and 30,000 pounds of carbon emissions on the 16-hour direct flight.
What exactly is so green about the new service? Contrary to what some might expect, much of what characterizes this classification isn't inherent in the planes themselves. Rather, it's the chosen routes that form the bulk of Emirates' efforts at greenification.
The departure route out of Dubai will provide the new plane with an unimpeded climb to allow the aircraft to reach its optimum cruise altitude quickly and efficiently. Emirates has conducted prolonged negotiations with the Russian government to allow for a preferred route over Russian airspace. The predominant traffic flows across northern Europe are west-east and Emirates has negotiated in order to optimize the structure to flow north-south.
The airline has also carried out negotiations with government agencies in Iceland, Canada and the United States – towards the same aim.
The Dubai-San Francisco aircraft will track close to the North Pole, following tests and negotiations carried out by Emirates. "The North Pole is essentially a short cut," explains Andrew Parker, Senior Vice President, Public and Environmental Affairs for Emirates. "It offers uncongested skies and is more efficient – it saves time and fuel. Yesterday, we did the Dubai-San Francisco route in just 15 hrs and 20 minutes." While other airlines have flown close to the North Pole before, Emirates is the first to offer such a long service.
That's not to say there are no inherently green features in the new 777-200LR. Compared to the Air Bus 340-500, the model is 20% more efficient. It has a better engine, one that burns less fuel and emits fewer pollutants. "The biggest thing we're doing is buying new planes. We've bought one hundred 777s and half have been delivered already," says Parker.
The new 777-200LR is specially washed beforehand to minimize drag, the aircraft uses electrical power on the ground in Dubai rather than running its auxiliary power unit, it uses minimal thrust on landing and a single-engine taxi to its gate, plus on-board staff collects all glass, newspapers, aluminium and paper for recycling.
While Emirates' efforts are laudable, there's still a lot more to be done. Green or not, taking a plane across the globe is far from environmentally friendly. Using TerraPass to calculate the carbon footprint one person flying nonstop from Dubai to San Francisco, I was left with a staggering 6,306 lbs of CO2. The technology still has a long way to go before one's carbon footprint can really be minimized. "In the future there will be all sorts of new materials to make aircrafts lighter. The technology will get better. Today we were trying to make the best of everything available to us right now," says Parker.
Then there's the more complex reality that other airlines and governments need to get on board in order for the most optimal routes around the world to be a viable possibility. This often means putting political tension, competitive instincts and possibly even security issues aside to make way for a worldwide agreement enabling more eco-friendly air travel.
Parker admits that there's a lot more to be done. "We need permanent agreements with government and agencies and we need to continually work on this year in and year out. Governments around the world are starting to take airspace inefficiencies seriously. Europe for one really has to get its act together. For such a developed community as the EU, it has too many delays, too much wasted fuel and emissions."