April 22, 2024

American Airlines unveils findings of contrail avoidance research

American Airlines has announced the findings of its study on contrail avoidance, aimed at reducing aviation’s environmental impact.

The study, led by Google Research and Breakthrough Energy, tested whether it is possible to identify atmospheric zones that are likely to create contrails. It also determined whether pilots could avoid making contrails in flight when supplied with data regarding the locations of these zones.

Contrails form when airplanes fly through layers of humidity, and they can persist as cirrus clouds for minutes or hours depending on the conditions. While these extra clouds can reflect sunlight back into space during the day, certain contrails can trap heat within the Earth’s atmosphere at night.

Google Research and Breakthrough Energy collected various data sets including satellite imagery, weather and flight path information, before using artificial intelligence (AI) to develop contrail forecast maps. 

A small group of American pilots flew 70 flights over six months, using AI-based predictions to make small modifications that were projected to create contrails.

After the test flights, Google Research analysed satellite imagery and found that flights where pilots used the AI predictions to avoid creating a contrail reduced contrail formation by 54%, as measured by distance, compared to flights where pilots did not use the predictions. 

Jill Blickstein, Vice President of Sustainability at American Airlines, said: “The results from this small-scale test are encouraging, and, while clearly there are more questions to answer about how to operationalize contrails avoidance across our industry, we’re excited to have played a role in establishing this first proof point. And we’re looking forward to sharing what we learned with stakeholders in the aviation industry and beyond.”

Juliet Rothenberg, Head of Product for Climate AI at Google Research, added: “We now have the first proof point that commercial flights can use these predictions to avoid contrails, as verified in satellite imagery. We’re grateful for our partnership with American Airlines and Breakthrough Energy – together we’ve taken a significant step towards understanding a high-potential climate solution.”