Flying green-soaring oil prices and the new normal in aviation

Informal survey finds pilots flying more efficiently in current volatile oil market.

Given the rising cost of fuel, most airlines and charter operators have relegated older aircraft such as the venerable Boeing 727 to the boneyard. Not so with this corporate 727-200, pictured at Showalter Flying Service at ORL (Exec, Orlando FL), which sports winglets and upgraded engines as fuel-saving measures.

"So how can you reduce the stabilizer drag? By moving the CG aft-within limits, of course. We've found that, in our particular case, just 100 lbs in the baggage compartment can make all the difference in the world.

When we began this experiment by putting ballast weight in the baggage compartment, we started seeing about 500 lbs fuel savings on a coast-to-coast flight-or about 100 lbs per hour." But, he adds, "Keep in mind we are still in the analysis phase and need to see these results over several more trips."

Green descent techniques

While cruising green is more intuitive mathematically, descending green requires a background in trigonometry, the cooperation of air traffic control and a briefing to passengers.

Gabe Miller, pictured in the front office of a Raytheon Beechjet 400A, doesn't feel it makes much sense to worry about fuel prices at present. He thinks it's more important to find ways to offset the cost "before it hits $10 per gallon."

Waxman shares a story regarding learning the descent technique: "When we first came up to Seattle, we noticed the Alaska Airlines pilots on approach would delay their descent point and they'd start down much later-past the point for a normal 3 degrees descent angle per se.

Then, as we began our descent, they would continue, and later start down in front of us-sometimes causing us to hit their wake turbulence. 'What the heck are these guys doing?' we said, but then all of sudden it dawned on us. We reprogrammed our [FMS] box to do 3.5 degrees down and the light bulb clicked on.

So we said, 'These Alaska guys are really smart'-for 3 different reasons. Number 1 is fuel economy. Flying higher longer means less fuel, which makes perfect sense. Number 2, it's less time spent in icing conditions, and there's tons of ice out here.

Hawker 700 Chief Pilot Jeff Stillwell notes that until recently he had "not really given any thought to flying anything but rated N1." Recent increases in oil prices have begun to influence Stillwell to reassess that philosophy.

And number 3, it's less time spent in the turbulence associated with the mountain range out here. Having adopted the same technique, we are now reaping the benefits Alaska Airlines is seeing on a much larger scale."

Eric Hansen also reports changes in descent profiles as a function of fuel savings. "We've been flying 45,000 ft as much as we possibly can, and we're now descending at 3.2 degrees in the Challenger 300. Typically, we'd do a 2.8 or a 3.0 degrees descent, but we're waiting to the last minute if we can to descend at 3.2 degrees .

It's a compromise between passenger comfort and fuel savings." Of descent angles and the use of airbrakes or spoilers to achieve them, one pilot responds, "Your passengers need to know that it's not poor piloting technique-because that was the adage-'You didn't plan your descent right.'

But we're using the airbrake now to steepen the angle and keep within the speed restriction." He says, "So educate your folks. They need to know it's more fuel efficient-and that's a good thing."

Soaring oil prices and the future

In a May 6, 2008 report, Goldman Sachs Group Analyst Arjun Murti wrote, "The possibility of $150-200 per barrel seems increasingly likely over the next 6-24 months."

Learjet 45 Pilot Johan Aarsvold believes oil is being used as a hedge on the US dollar. But, he cautions, when any investment becomes a "no brainer," the markets will turn.

Among predictions of $200-a-barrel oil, will prices continue their relentless march into higher territory unchecked, or is this a bubble ready to burst? Johan Aarsvold, a Learjet 45 pilot, is cautious.

He says, "I think we're all starting to accept the fact that fuel is going to remain expensive. However, whenever it becomes a no-brainer something's going to change. Maybe there will be some surprises.

Take the housing market as an example. The thinking once was that, if you buy a house, it doesn't matter what you pay for it because it's going to go up in value by 10-20% per year. Yet look at that market now.

Aviation Mgr Harold Waxman, shown atop the wing of DSU Aviation's Falcon 900EX, cites the use of steeper descent angles and aft ballast to fly more efficiently.

Once oil becomes a no-brainer to consumers from an investment standpoint, the markets will turn. I think people are using oil as a hedge on the weak US dollar." Miller is nonchalant. "It doesn't make much sense to worry about the price of fuel now as it's only going to go higher in the future," he suggests.

"The main thing is trying to find ways to offset the cost. And the thing is, we're not trying to find ways to deal with it now-we're trying to find ways to deal with it when it hits $10.00 a gallon." Stillwell and Durrett both cite election-year politics as an unknown factor, but a factor nonetheless. Says Stillwell, "I have a gut feeling-maybe it's just wishful thinking-that the price is peaking out.

It has something to do with the election." Durrett adds, "I think prices will have to settle, but they'll be a new normal. I think some are waiting on the election cycle-I'm hoping by the end of the year."

Black and white and green all over

Although a clear answer to the question of "Are you flying more this year than last year?" remains elusive, the scenario of ever higher oil prices evokes only one chilling response. As one pilot put it, "We're looking into options for the latter half of this year, including parking the airplane one day a week."

Yet this singular comment was overshadowed by other respondents who pointed out the speed at which business aviation as a whole is reacting, adapting and becoming greener through technique alone in an environment of unprecedented oil prices.

As Challenger 300 pilot Hansen concludes, "Like anything, we find other ways to accomplish the mission. We'll adapt." It's likely that many of those adaptations will be on the green side.

Douglas Wilson started as a lineman at JGG (Williamsburg VA). An active pilot, he now serves as director of line operations and customer service for Galvin Flying Services at BFI (Boeing Field, Seattle WA).



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