Will the end of the North Atlantic Highway benefit the environment?

Since the 1960s, the North Atlantic Tracks, officially known as the North Atlantic Organised Track System (NAT-OTS), has been connecting Europe with North America. This North Atlantic highway is determined by the two respective radio stations, Shanwick and Gander, and allows aircrafts to cross the Atlantic without permanent radar guidance from the ground.

The exact routes are recalculated daily based on weather conditions and include a start and end point, as well as several coordinates in between, which may only be deviated from to a certain degree.

Reduction of CO2 emissions

For the first time since the inception of this system, there were route-free days on the North Atlantic Highway during the coronavirus pandemic due to the near cessation of air traffic. This left room for experimentation regarding flexible routing, which would have various advantages: shorter routes outside the North Atlantic Highway or more optimal use of the jet stream. Both aspects lead to fuel savings, and thus, to a reduction in CO2 emissions. According to a study published in the Environmental Research Letters journal, flight distances could be shortened between 0.7% and 16.4%, saving millions of kilograms of CO2.

In mid-May, flexible routing was even used during the big airplane race of 2022. In this race, the participating airlines tried to travel as environmentally friendly as possible. In the process, KLM worked with international air traffic control, amongst others, on its flight to Edmonton to choose the most efficient route without restrictions and to adjust it even during the flight so that as little kerosene as possible is burned.

First kick-off runs since March 1, 2022

Since the beginning of spring, airlines have had the option of submitting their own route plans for flights that fly below an altitude of 10,000 metres. This means that any flight route can be selected. Thanks to a new satellite-based tracking system, the old system could even be eliminated altogether. The new tracking system allows aircraft positions to be determined every seven to eight seconds; previously, this took 14 minutes or longer. The faster tracking will allow the minimum distance between aircrafts to be reduced to about 26 kilometres. Currently, the minimum distance is still about 74 kilometres for safety reasons.

Air traffic control, as well as the airlines, are currently working together to further analyse these findings of flexible routes and hopefully implement them in favour of the environment.

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