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Should clean airspace trump economic development?

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Britain plans to curb "binge flying" by limiting growth at Heathrow Airport. Here in the United States, the FAA is taking a more technology-driven approach to the problem.

I've been in my current home for something like 8 years now (my husband knows the exact day count), and many things have changed in my community since then. One of the most notable developments, and not for good, is that a couple of years ago two local airports (Newark International and Teterboro, which is for smaller jets) changed their flight paths to buzz directly over my house on certain days of the week.

Not so bad in the winter but for a gal who LIVES to have her windows open every day of the year possible, it's still hard to get used to the noise. I hear that's because Greenwich, Conn., was richer and more vocal than New Jersey's Bergen County on this one.

I got to thinking about this yesterday when Andrew Nusca here at SmartPlanet sent me this article from the New York Times about the United Kingdom's decision to stop adding runways at Heathrow Airport because it was "incompatible" with the nation's goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The nation's goal is to cut emissions by at least 34 percent by 2020, compared with 1990 levels.

Pause to reflect on that one moment.

Britain has decided that it doesn't want to support what it calls flying for pleasure (winging off to Spain, say, for a bachelor party) and that it doesn't need the roughly 200,000 flights related to that runway.

Of course, anyone visiting the aforementioned Newark will be well-acquainted with the construction that has been expanding that airport for years. And I think they just opened another terminal in San Jose, Calif., if I'm not mistaken. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles airport systems, which produces almost as much carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions as a midsize city, has embraced technology in the form of a software application to help curb and curtail its carbon footprint impact.

Indeed, from a national standpoint, the United States is focusing on how to create a greener airspace through the Federal Aviation Administration's CLEEN program. CLEEN stands for Continuous Lower Energy, Emissions and Noise, and here are its goals:

  • Reduce fuel burn by 33 percent
  • Cut landing and takeoff nitrous oxide emissions by 60 percent (without increasing other sorts of emissions)
  • Reduce noise levels by 32 decibels relative to current noise standards
  • Increase use of sustainable fuels

The FAA just gave out $125 million to companies that are working on technologies toward these goals including Boeing, General Electric, Honeywell, Pratt & Whitney, and Rolls Royce. (The links, except the Rolls Royce one, point specifically to each company's CLEEN plan, not just their overall Web site.) Those funds are being matched by the companies, so that's another $250 million toward solving the problem.

The technologies being funded by those funds are all over the map, from new engines and new biofuels that are being tested by Honeywell to improved flight, weather handling and air traffic management systems from GE Aviation. The photo below shows two people in the flight simulator for the new flight management system, which is intended to help optimize trajectories and, therefore reduce fuel burn and aircraft noise. GE

GE Aviation is working with Lockheed Martin, AirDat and Alaska Airlines to develop and test the new management systems.

Maybe you're not old enough to remember, but I used to fly cross-country a lot from parent to parent, and I distinctly remember the times when the pilot came on to announce that we were going to circle some area of the country or another in order to burn off fuel. Can you imagine the reaction to that announcement today?

Maybe Britain's approach to making its own airspace cleaner is the right one for its own particular circumstances. Or maybe it has a contract with all the videoconference and teleconferencing technology vendors sure to benefit from its decision to limit air trafffic.

But even though I believe strongly in the idea of cleaner airspace and KNOW that air travel is a huge culprit in our climate problems, I far prefer the FAA's idea that technology innovation can mitigate the problem.

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure