Contrail studies need to look at noise pollution

Photo credit: Anton Kudryashov

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition, and Honorary Chair, Quiet American Skies

While some people are familiar with the cloudy white lines that follow planes, I don’t know if everyone knows the name of these ephemeral slashes across the sky. They are called condensation trails, or contrails. Today, researchers are looking into how contrails contribute to global warming. CBS News reported on a recent study indicating that contrails may be trapping heat and as a result, contributing about 35% of the aviation industry’s climate impact. Thus, contrails are now considered a sustainability problem, according to American Airlines’ Vice President of Sustainability Jill Blickstein.

The study stated that reducing a plane’s altitude can decrease contrails considerably. The article explains that doing so would be similar to a plane flying lower to avoid turbulence. However, extra fuel is burned when planes descend, which could exacerbate climate change. But the article adds that few planes would actually descend to avoid contrails, so little fuel will be needed.

Another concern is having to ask air traffic control towers for permission to lower planes, putting extra work on individuals responsible for guiding planes. The reporter noted that if plans include possible descents to avoid contrails, there would be less need to ask air traffic control for permission.

Blickstein said that there are already plans to study avoiding contrails on longer, overnight flights. The limitation of contrails “will take flight industry-wide” in the near future, she said. I have a question for Blickstein: Won’t lower-flying planes, which are closer to the ground, emit more noise to residents on the ground? The noise impact on residents should be part of any contrail studies.

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