Airlines save fuel flying the long way

Technology around since 1996: Flex Tracks, a method of allowing airlines the flexibility to use up-to-date wind information to make best use of tailwinds or to avoid headwinds, is not new. It was launched across the South Pacific in 1996 when Qantas, Air New Zealand and United Airlines introduced FANS – or Future Air Navigation System – on 747-400s.

Enormous cost savings for airlines: Flex Tracks challenges the ATC system each day with widely varying routes but the saving for airlines are enormous. In the first 50 days (July to mid-August 2005) of Flex Tracks operations between Singapore and the Australian east coast, the reported and extrapolated fuel figures indicated a 500-tonne fuel burn reduction (or $430,000 in fuel savings), while the three core airlines operating on these tracks indicated a combined flight time reduction of 11 hours.

Things can only get better: According to Greg McDonald, Flex Tracks project manager with Airservices: "Flex Tracks is a stepping stone towards the delivery of the ultimate goal – User Preferred Trajectories (UPTs) – in a number of evolutionary stages."

Points to watch: The significant areas for attention are:

* How airspace closures – military or Traffic Information Broadcast by Aircraft (TIBA) – affect Flex Tracks.

* Summer thunderstorm activity in northwestern Australia, with controllers having to deal with deviations off track for both Flex Tracks aircraft and those flying fixed routes, thereby increasing workload.

* Those track change problems are compounded by some airlines not using Flex Tracks but sticking to traditional published routes.

* This is further complicated by the fact that aircraft do enter Australian airspace through the same gates and/or go to the same destination as those using Flex Tracks but do not fly the Flex Track.

* ATC needs to be aware that Flex Tracks often differ significantly from standard tracks which may result in pilots requiring quite different departure routings.

* Some flight planning systems cannot accept route segments longer than 1100km.

Spectacular results, some problems: While there have been problems, the results have been spectacular. According to McDonald, one Emirates flight operating from Dubai to Sydney saved 43 minutes and 8040kg of fuel by tracking to the south of Australia instead of crossing the Australian continent from the typical entry point in the northwest – almost 2000km to the north of the track used.

Sydney morning curfews only problem for speedy arrivals: But that sort of success also has a downside, with aircraft arriving at Sydney before the curfew is lifted at 6am. Nonetheless, airlines are delighted at the results, with Emirates reporting savings of tonnes of fuel per day and Singapore Airlines and Qantas registering similar outcomes. Currently, Flex Tracks operates as a trial at night between midnight Australian Eastern Standard Time and 8am AEST.

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