American Airlines collaborates on contrail avoidance study

Contrails criss-cross the sky at dusk.
Sudzie, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

American Airlines, in collaboration with Google Research and Breakthrough Energy, has unveiled the outcomes of a groundbreaking study focused on contrail avoidance, a move aimed at mitigating the environmental impact of aviation.

The findings of this study, substantiated by satellite imagery, underscore the airline’s commitment to reducing its ecological footprint and contributing to more sustainable air travel practices.

Understanding Contrails and Their Impact

Contrails, short for “condensation trails,” form when aircraft traverse humid layers of the atmosphere. Depending on atmospheric conditions, these trails can evolve into cirrus clouds that may persist for varying durations, ranging from minutes to hours.

While some contrails can reflect sunlight back into space during the day, specific types can have the opposite effect, trapping heat within the Earth’s atmosphere, particularly during nighttime.

Pioneering Study

The pioneering study, spearheaded by Google Research and Breakthrough Energy and with active involvement from American Airlines, focused on identifying atmospheric zones conducive to contrail formation.

The research team then investigated the feasibility of equipping pilots with data about these zones to enable them to modify flight paths and avoid creating contrails.


Jill Blickstein, Vice President of Sustainability at American, expressed the airline’s enthusiasm for this collaborative endeavor, stating,

“American is grateful for the opportunity to work with our partners at Google Research and Breakthrough Energy to help advance the science on contrail avoidance.”

Blickstein also pointed out that while the study is a small-scale test, it offers encouraging results that can lay the groundwork for further exploration in the aviation industry and beyond.

Data Analysis

The study’s methodology involved the collection of extensive datasets, including satellite imagery, weather information, and flight path data.

Leveraging the power of artificial intelligence (AI), Google Research and Breakthrough Energy crafted contrail forecast maps. American’s pilots, in a series of 70 flights conducted over six months, employed these AI-generated predictions to make minor adjustments to routes that were likely to produce contrails.

Juliet Rothenberg, head of product for Climate AI at Google Research, emphasized the integration of AI with diverse datasets, saying, “Our contrails predictions combine the latest in AI research with massive amounts of satellite imagery, weather data and flight data.”

Rothenberg also highlighted that this collaboration’s success has yielded the first verifiable instance of commercial flights utilizing AI predictions to evade contrail formation.

Encouraging Results and Future Prospects

Following the completion of the test flights, Google Research analyzed satellite images to assess the effectiveness of the AI-driven approach.

The data revealed that flights where pilots utilized the AI forecasts to circumvent contrail formation reduced such occurrences by a remarkable 54%, as measured by distance, compared to flights where AI predictions were not employed.

This initial achievement, albeit within a limited flight sample, establishes the feasibility of verifiably avoiding contrail formation during commercial flights. Nonetheless, further research and broader implementation are necessary to ascertain the scalability and replicability of this approach.

Sustainable Aviation Practices

Marc Shapiro, Director of Breakthrough Energy Contrails, lauded this study as a significant step toward addressing aviation’s climate impact: “Avoiding contrails might be one of the best ways to limit aviation’s climate impact, and now we have a clear demonstration that it’s possible to do so.”

The study underscores the benefits of collaboration between forward-thinking entities in tackling complex environmental challenges.

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By Len Varley - Assistant Editor 4 Min Read
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