Cleaner, Greener Skies above Seattle: A Q&A with Gary Beck

Gary Beck is the Lunch Keynote 
CleanTech Alliance Fourth Annual Meeting
Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Washington State Convention Center

Doors Open at 7:00 AM

The skies above Seattle are a little cleaner thanks to Gary Beck and the Greener Skies Initiative. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac) was one of the first to use satellite navigation to optimize aircraft approaches. The result saves time and fuel while cutting emissions.

Gary will detail the Greener Skies Initiative as a Fourth Annual Meeting keynote speaker. He answered a few questions as a teaser. Don’t forget to register before November 10 to get the early-bid rate.

The Greener Skies Initiative uses satellite navigation approaches to make airport landings more efficient in terms of both fuel consumption and time. You’ve described the new approach as sliding down the bannister vs. taking the steps. What exactly does that mean and how does it work?

In the current air traffic control system, there are basically two ways that an aircraft is cleared from its cruise altitude down to the aircraft terminal control area for landing.

  • One way is for the air traffic controller to issue a number of step down altitudes until the aircraft is low enough to turn over to the airport approach controller. Every time the aircraft levels off during this series of step downs additional fuel is burned, CO2 emissions occur as does noise. I call this method “taking the stairs”.
  • The second method, using performance-based navigation arrival procedures, allows the controller to clear the aircraft from its cruise altitude all the way down to the terminal arrival altitude without any level offs. Thus saving fuel, CO2 emissions and noise. I call this method “sliding down the bannister”.

The Greener Skies Initiative was originally expected to save 2.1 million gallons of jet fuel and reduce carbon emissions by 22,000 metric tons each year. Boeing released the latest numbers this summer, stating that results are 28% greater than originally projected. How much fuel and emissions is Alaska Airlines saving over Sea-Tac?

Currently it is difficult to figure out Alaska Airlines’ savings because one of the three parallel runways (Runway 16C) has been closed for repair since last spring and we have not been able to take advantage of performance-based navigation approach procedures during this time period. Once the runway is open and we are able to link the performance-based navigation arrivals to the approaches, we forecast a savings of 44 gallons to 111 gallons of fuel, nine minutes of flight time and reduced CO2 emissions by 937 lbs. to 2,354 lbs. per flight.

Senator Cantwell heralded Alaska Airlines and Sea-Tac for moving quickly on implementation and results. On the other hand, other airports are lagging in the broader NextGen Technology deployment. What can other airports and airlines learn from the Greener Skies Initiative?

Greener Skies over Seattle was on the leading edge of implementation of NextGen technology outside of the state of Alaska. Lessons learned from the Greener Skies over Seattle project have been incorporated into a template that is being used when rolling out performance-based navigation procedures at additional airports.

One key lesson was to involve the local communities that are affected by any new performance-based navigation procedures early on in the planning stages. It is important for the communities affected to understand how the new procedures will impact them and to have all of their concerns and questions heard.

Another key lesson is the air traffic controllers should also be involved very early on in the planning and design phases of the procedures. It is important to partner with them so that they will understand the procedures and encourage use.

The broader NextGen deploy promised to save 1.6 billion gallons of jet fuel by 2020. With several major airports deployed, is that projection still on track?

Yes, the fuel savings projection is still on track. There have been a number of extremely successful rollouts of performance-based navigation procedures at a number of airports. A couple of examples are the Northern California Metroplex. There are over 44 new performance-based navigation procedures being used everyday at San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco airports. Another very successful project was accomplished at the Houston Intercontinental Airport. These are just two examples, but there are many more.

The Greener Skies Initiative is only one of many sustainability projects you worked on while at Alaska Airlines. What else is being done to improve airline efficiency and airport congestion?

Alaska Airlines is replacing our fuel burning ground support equipment with electric vehicles. More efficient flight planning allows us to plan our flights to minimize fuel burn, which in turn reduces CO2 emissions. Duel taxi lanes were introduced this summer at SeaTac. This will allow aircraft on the ground to taxi more efficiently and save ground time.

The entire fleet of Alaska Airlines aircraft are capable of flying satellite navigation approaches. Additionally, all of Alaska Airlines pilots are trained to fly satellite navigation approaches.

Where does jet biofuel use stand now at Alaska Airlines and broader commercial aviation?

There are currently three biofuels that are approved for use by ASTM with a maximum blend percentage of 50% with petroleum jet fuel. Although fuels have been approved, there are no facilities producing aviation biofuels on a commercial scale.

A new fuel pathway, alcohol to jet ( ATJ ), is expected no later than Q1 2016. Alaska Airlines has agreed to fly the first commercial flight using fuel produced from this new technology.

Alaska Airlines is also exploring other new technology and is on track to meet its goal of bringing aviation biofuel to one of its airports by 2020.

These questions are a small glimpse of what’s in store at the CleanTech Alliance Annual Meeting on November 17. Early-bird registration ends soon, so register now.