The International Air Transport Association (IATA) recently forecast earnings of $4.1 billion for the global aviation industry this year, with the air passenger market growing by 5.3 percent. While the news brings cheer to the industry amid the pall of gloom hovering over the world economy, it also brings renewed focus on the problems that an increase in air traffic will create. For one, the rise in traffic is bound to increase the congestion in the inter-city and inter-continental air lanes. This will raise the costs in terms of fuel consumed and flight delays as well as increase the risk of mid-air and ground collisions. It also raises the prospect of increasing the emission of greenhouse gases.
Various players in the industry are now turning to technology to address these problems. Recently, NASA embarked on an 18-month project to deploy NextGen air traffic management (ATM) technology that leverages cloud computing. The cloud is expected to help airlines and air traffic controllers to share real-time traffic information, allowing them to determine areas of potential congestion and decide flight paths in advance avoiding those spots. Commercial airlines have also started turning to cloud computing and storage to replace their data centers, thus reducing costs.
More recently, French aircraft maker Airbus announced its vision for smart aviation in 2050, which includes plans to let passenger planes fly 'like birds in formation' to reduce costs and time. It is also working towards making flights in Europe and the United States about 13 minutes shorter on an average. Once implemented, the scheme can save around 9 million tons of aviation fuel a year.
In another approach, various industry players are planning to leverage Big Data to enable collaborative decision making. As an example to the advantages of this approach, if arrival and departure times are precisely given, it can improve aircraft handling and air traffic flow management, among others.
Airlines are also actively changing fuel source to minimize their carbon footprint. Currently, greenhouse gas emissions from aviation represent 2 percent of global emissions. This number is expected to grow to 3 percent by 2050. Earlier this month, Thomson Airways became the first commercial airlines in Europe to fly on bio-fuels. Air Canada flew its first flight using bio-fuel, made from recycled cooking oil, in June. Experiments are also on to replace current fuels with hydrogen.
On the ground, too, technology is being utilized to make flying smooth and reduce costs. The United Kingdom's National Air Traffic Services (NATS), which runs all air traffic control operations in the country, has deployed a virtual desktop and flash-based data storage system to improve services and reduce its carbon footprint. Over the next four years, NATS is estimated to save around £9 million from the initiative.
The changes are only beginning but the pressure to cut costs and reduce the carbon footprint of air travel is inducing airlines and other players to focus on new technologies with renewed vigor. Expect these 'winds of change' to completely alter aviation and air travel in the years to come.