Flying airplanes lower may help climate change

Photo credit: Ömer Aydın

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

A recent report from CBS News discusses research showing that airplanes can reduce contrails* by flying lower. Some research indicates that contrails, the white plumes following high-flying jets, may account for as much as 35% of the aviation industry’s climate impact. Flying a little bit lower, just 2000 to 4000 feet, can reduce contrail formation as much as 50%. However, this will increase fuel use by about 2%, producing more carbon dioxide and adding to climate change. The research was done by Google and Breakthrough Energy, a company Bill Gates founded to fund technology that reduces emissions. 

Unfortunately, noise is the unavoidable auditory byproduct of internal combustion engines. Will flying lower to decrease contrail formation increase aircraft noise on the ground? I don’t think so. Most aircraft noise heard on the ground occurs during takeoff and landing, and for those living near airports, during taxiing. If an airplane descends from 40,000 feet to 38,000 or 36,000 feet, the increase in sound levels on the ground should be negligible. 

*Here is more on contrails from my noise colleague Arline Bronzaft.

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