Aviation

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AviATioN is one of the most significant drivers of global warming and climate change. The rapid development of economies around the world has increased the desire to travel by air, thus creating greater levels of pollution, both in the air and on the ground. However, aviation plays an important part within the global economy and, as a result, governments, aircraft manufacturers, airlines, and airports are working hard to reduce their global impact. The growth of air transportation has been frenetic due to technical advancements and economic development. The jet engine and wide-bodied jet aircraft, such as the Boeing 747, revolutionized the number of people who could be carried over greater distances at far lower unit cost. The result was cheaper and more frequent holiday and business trips.

The economic development of countries and higher standards of living have also allowed passengers to travel more frequently. Linked to these advances has been the desire of governments across the world to deregulate the aviation industry, thus helping to create additional competition. The introduction of new carriers, particularly low-cost airlines, such as Southwest Airlines of the United States and Ryanair of Europe, has helped increase mobility by air for groups of consumers who would have previously found it difficult to travel by air. Commercial aviation carries some 4.5 billion passengers per year. With continued growth by low-cost carriers and the traditional airlines, it is estimated by the Airports Council International that this figure will reach an estimated 7.4 billion by 2020.

Economically, aviation is of great importance, creating both wealth and employment worldwide. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has highlighted that commercial aviation accounts for 8 percent of GDP globally. Aviation has helped drive globalization and allows greater communication between industries and friends and families. Added to this are the millions of jobs created in the aviation sector ranging from aircraft manufacturing, airline carriers, airport operators, and employment within the regulatory authorities.

environmental impact

The impact of aviation on the environment is multi-faceted. Aircraft expel numerous gases during flight, including carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, water vapor, and a variety of particulates. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, commercial aviation contributes 3 percent of all CO2 emissions. This is still low compared to energy providers who account for 25 percent of all carbon emissions. However, the percentage contribution to CO2 emissions from aviation continues to grow, while energy providers have been able to reduce their contribution. The Aviation Environmental Federation estimates that commercial aviation produces 700 million tons of CO2 per year. A flight from New York to London, for example, is estimated to create two tons of CO2 per passenger.

The production of nitrogen oxides by jet engines results in further environmental impact associated with global warming. Nitrogen oxides have resulted in an increase in ozone, which has led to an increase in temperature. The emission of water vapor (most noticeable by the condensation trails that often follow aircraft) may seem harmless, but contributes to warming the atmosphere and, therefore, trapping heat at the Earth's surface. The release of particulates by jet aircraft can also cause the formation of clouds, which contribute to global warming. Other chemicals that are released during flight include: sulfur dioxide, hydrocarbons, and carbon monoxide, all of which have been linked to global warming.

A growing concern within the scientific community is the evidence that aviation not only emits chemicals that are linked to global warming, but that it does so directly into the most sensitive parts of the atmosphere. Commercial airliners tend to fly between 30,000 and 42,000 ft. (9,144-12,801 m.) Here, the atmosphere is extremely sensitive to chemicals such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide. Scientists believe that the actual damage caused by aircraft may be greater than estimates predict. This is, however, disputed by the IATA, which points to the fact that the carbon footprint for airliners in 2005 was slightly reduced with the introduction of efficiency improvements.

increased air travel

The popularity of flying causes greater levels of greenhouse gases to be emitted, as congestion grows around the world's busiest airports and air routes. It is not uncommon for aircraft to have to wait in long lines with engines running before they can take off from airports in cities such at Los Angeles and New York. When airborne, aircraft suffer from congested airways, it results in flights operating at less than efficient altitudes, which, in turn leads to less than efficient operations. The airway navigation systems found in most countries also tend to be outdated, stopping aircraft from taking the most direct route to their destination. Furthermore, airports such as London Heathrow are operating at levels well beyond their original runway capacity, which results in aircraft having to circle the airport before they are cleared to land. When on the ground, it is common for aircraft arriving at London Heathrow to have to wait for air bridges to become available, as the lack of infrastructure extends to the terminal facilities.

Airports are subject to a variety of environmental considerations. One of the main problems surrounds the lack of public transportation to reach terminal facilities. For example, Washington Dulles Airport has no direct Metro connection, which results in passengers needing to either use car transportation or change from rail to bus transportation. Aircraft require a vast array of support vehicles to help turn them around for the next duty. These vehicles are powered by gas or diesel engines, which in turn leave a carbon footprint.

new technology

Although international aviation was excluded from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) arranged a summit in 2007 to look at how manufacturers, airlines, airports, and governments can work together to reduce aviation's carbon footprint. Boeing has created the next generation of aircraft from composite materials that weigh far less than their predecessors. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is one such new development, with 50 percent of its structure made up of composite materials. Boeing estimates that the 787 will create 20 percent less carbon than the current aircraft operating on medium/long range routes. Airbus has promoted the development of aircraft that place greater emphasis on reducing their carbon footprint. The Airbus A380 Super Jumbo, while bigger than the jumbo jet, has a low fuel burn (12 percent lower than the jumbo jet) and is able to take more passengers, helping to reduce the number of aircraft required to fly on certain routes. The Airbus A380 is the first jet airliner to meet International Environmental Standard ISO 14001.

Airlines have also encouraged manufacturers to look at new methods of powering their aircraft. Virgin Atlantic's Chair Sir Richard Branson has highlighted his interest in powering his fleet of aircraft via biofuel or clean-fuel technologies. There are, however, a number of issues that need to be addressed before such initiatives could become reality. First, biofuels such as ethanol tend to freeze at high altitudes, and therefore chemicals would be needed to reduce this risk.

Second, large areas of land and water are required for producing such energy. The land needed would require further deforestation, which in turn would have major implications for climate change. The use of hydrogen has also been suggested as a means of powering airliners of the future. However, such fuels would require greater storage space and would still leave contour trails, that warm the atmosphere.

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