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American Airlines Participates in Novel Research on Contrail Avoidance

American Airlines has revealed the findings of a first-of-its-kind study on contrail avoidance, with results verified by satellite imagery and the goal of reducing the impact of aviation on the environment.


American Airlines Participates in First-of-its-Kind Research on Contrail Avoidance - Photo Credit: William Hook/Unsplash

On Tuesday (August 8, 2023), American Airlines announced the results of their novel study on contrail avoidance, with the results verified by satellite imagery. Contrails are formed when airplanes fly through layers of humidity, and can then persist as cirrus clouds for minutes and even hours, depending on the environmental conditions. Since these additional clouds can reflect sunlight back into space during the day, certain contrails can trap heat within the Earth’s atmosphere at night. Led by Google Research and Breakthrough Energy, and supported by American Airlines, the study tested whether it is possible to identify atmospheric zones that are more likely to create contrails. As part of the study, the team then determined whether pilots could avoid producing contrails when supplied with data locating these zones.


In Tuesday’s announcement, American Airlines’ Vice President of Sustainability, Jill Blickstein, said,


“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. 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.”


Also commenting on the study, Google Research’s Head of Product for Climate AI, Juliet Rothenberg, said,


“Our contrails predictions combine the latest in AI research with massive amounts of satellite imagery, weather data and flight data. 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.”


Following the collection of large data sets, including satellite imagery, weather and flight path data, Google Research and Breakthrough Energy used AI to develop contrail forecast maps. During the study, a small group of pilots flew flights over a six month period using AI-based predictions to make small modifications to routes that were projected to produce contrails. After the test flights, Google Research analyzed satellite imagery and found that flights where pilots used the AI predictions were able to reduce contrail formation by 54 percent, compared to flights where pilots did not use the predictions. Additional research will be required to determine whether this success can be replicated and scaled.


Further commenting on the successful contrail study, Marc Shapiro, Director of Breakthrough Energy Contrails, added,


“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. This study is a great example of what happens when creative, ambitious organizations work together to better understand and solve a tough problem, and we're grateful for American’s and Google’s partnership.”


American Airlines’ purpose is to “care for people on life’s journey.” Shares in the American Airlines Group, Inc., trade on NASDAQ under the ticker symbol AAL and the company’s stock is included in the S&P 500.



Source: American Airlines

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