Wing tip extensions to reduce drag

Sensemaking / Wing tip extensions to reduce drag

Ambitions to bring down aircraft emissions face a tough climb.

By Will Simpson / 29 Oct 2013

The travel industry doesn’t exactly have a clean slate in terms of sustainability. Flights are one of the most notorious contributors towards carbon dioxide emissions, at 2% and rising of the global total.

Last year, the UK-based multinational leisure travel group TUI Travel challenged itself to operate Europe’s most fuel-efficient airlines, while also reducing the carbon emissions of its holiday packages on the ground by 20,000 tonnes.

These ambitions, set out in its 2012 - 2014 Sustainable Holidays Plan, not only raise the bar for the industry: they also make sound business sense. Environmental efficiencies brought the group a saving of £16 million in the 2012 financial year, while responding to rising interest in responsible holidays from consumers. TUI Travel Environment Manager James Whittingham explains:

“From research we conducted in 2012, we know there is definite interest in greener holidays. Two thirds of respondents said that they would change their holiday behaviour if they felt it would help the environment, and two-thirds stated that issues like climate change and carbon emissions were very important to them.”

Four years ago, TUI Travel airlines set a six year target to reduce absolute and relative carbon emissions by 6%, which has been met two years early; it now aims to cut relative emissions by a further 3% by 2015. As part of this commitment, it has overhauled its aircraft fleet for both short and long-haul flights. The 787 Boeing Dreamliner will replace the Boeing 767: the new aircraft is lighter and estimated to be 20% more fuel efficient and up to 60% quieter. According to the latest report, the Group’s airlines are up to a third more efficient than the average scheduled carriers.

TUI Travel recently announced the decision to procure a further fuel-reducing innovation, known as a Split Scimitar Winglet system, which TUI will retrofit to its fleet. It will be the first airline in Europe to use the winglets, which complement the existing blended winglets widely used by the industry. “These are wing tip extensions which help to induce lift and reduce drag”, Whittingham explains. “They massage the aerodynamics of the aircraft to reduce fuel burn.” TUI Travel estimates that each winglet will save up to 200 tonnes of jet fuel and 630 tonnes of carbon per aircraft annually.

Whittingham likens such innovations to the technical advances in cycling. “You will have heard [the British cycling coach] Sir Dave Brailsford talking about ‘marginal gains’. This is exactly what we are trying to do across our airlines: make small incremental improvements that add up and put us ahead as one of the most fuel efficient operators in Europe.”

Thomson Airways, TUI Travel’s UK airline, has also conducted experiments with sustainable biofuel on its aircraft, carefully sourcing those that are either second or third generation (which are derived from waste or industry byproducts). However, biofuel is still three times the price of kerosene. So a switch from fossil fuels isn’t imminent; rather, it’s part of a medium to long-term carbon reduction strategy.

Could a combination of these innovations lead to genuine low carbon holidays? Not yet, says Rupert Fausset, transport lead at Forum for the Future: “Flying is one of the toughest sustainability challenges. Although planes have got better, there is no truly ‘low carbon’ flying in prospect. This means that the biggest challenge is the future growth of the industry, which can swallow up the best efforts of airlines and aircraft manufacturers to cut emissions incrementally.”

Whittingham confirms that there is a long way to go towards sustainable holidays: “The largest component of the CO2 emissions of a holiday is the flight. This means that, even if you have everything from water saving to thermal solar energy at the hotel to heat your water, there is still going to be a carbon impact.”

Another difficulty the company faces – as a multinational – results from varying approaches to carbon reduction across Europe. “We have 31 different source markets”, explains Whittingham, “and each of these countries are all at different places on the sustainability journey. Some, like the Nordics and UK, wish to run ahead and continue to innovate. It has been a challenge to keep pushing the leaders while offering appropriate support to those that are at the start of their journey.”

One solution could be found in the reported appetite of consumers to change their travel behaviour. TUI Travel is calling for an industry standard on reporting fuel and carbon efficiency for UK airlines to enable customers to make more sustainable airline choices. – Will Simpson

TUI Travel is a Forum for the Future partner.

Photo credit: TUI Travel

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