How The FAA Is Reducing Emissions With Better Aircraft Descents
January 13, 2022
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  • The FAA has introduced 42 optimized descent profiles across the United States. The FAA is introducing the descents in a bid to make aviation across the country more efficient with fewer emissions. At the same time, airlines benefit from burning less fuel on flights.

    The aviation industry is well aware that it needs to play its part in the overall reduction of worldwide carbon emissions. While airlines are proactively taking some steps, the OEMs such as Airbus and Boeing are also playing their part, alongside aviation regulators across the globe.

    Last year the FAA introduced 42 new descent profiles across the United States. The profiles were implemented at larger airports such as Dallas Fort Worth, Harry Reid International in Las Vegas, and Miami International Airport, alongside many more mid-sized airports. US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg commented that the new procedures will “dramatically reduce emissions” as the US works on a goal of net-zero aviation emissions by 2050.

    The FAA believes that the optimized descent profiles will save around two million gallons of fuel per airport while cutting around 40 million pounds (18143 tonnes) of CO2 emissions each year. This is quite a substantial saving, with the FAA equating it to 1,300 flights from Atlanta to Dallas with a Boeing 737.

    How do optimized descent profiles work?

    So how do optimized descent profiles work? To understand better, let’s first understand how a typical descent works. Aircraft will level off at intermediate steps between their cruise altitude and landing during a standard descent. Each time the aircraft levels off, additional power and thus fuel is used to work against gravity and stop the aircraft from descending further.

    Lufthansa, DFS, Continuous Descent

    An example of a stepped approach. Image:

    An optimized or continuous descent profile eliminates the intermediate steps and thus fuels usage from ramping up the engines at each level. However, they also allow the aircraft to start their descent later, as less time and distance are needed to complete the procedure. This allows aircraft to stay higher for longer, where they are already burning less fuel.

    The FAA isn’t the first to try this out

    Over the past few years, several major players within the aviation industry have been trialing continuous descents. In the earlier days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the shallow levels of flights around Frankfurt allowed Lufthansa to trial such descents without adding an additional burden to ATC. During the two-month trial, Lufthansa reduced its CO2 emissions by 2,000 tonnes.

    Last September, Simple Flying reported that LATAM had entered into a partnership with Airbus to enable continuous descents on its entire fleet of Airbus A320 aircraft, with the intention of saving some 60,000 tons of CO2 emissions each year.