New Arizona, Il Duce/Warlord
Polar Route Saves Fuel, but Did Santa Clear It?
By JOE SHARKEY -- NY Times
Published: December 22, 2008
GRANTED, the environmental credentials of a man whose airline features in-flight showers are subject to question.
Nevertheless, Sheik Ahmed bin Saeed al-Maktoum, the chairman of Emirates Airline, said his airline had demonstrated that smarter preparation and flight-routing could help reduce carbon emissions in air travel.
“The whole world is going in this direction” in at least giving consideration to the effects of air travel on the environment, Sheik Ahmed said last week as Emirates introduced nonstop service between Dubai and San Francisco. “And everybody should be doing more.”
The first Emirates airplane flying the route to San Francisco from Dubai was a Boeing 777-200LR, which landed here after a 8,100-mile flight that took 15 hours and 20 minutes.
Emirates said it was the “world’s first cross-polar green flight.” By that, Emirates meant that the aircraft, already known for having better fuel-efficiency than older long-range planes, was routed near the North Pole to save about 2,000 gallons of carbon-emitting fuel. Making the trip required special clearances from Canada, Iceland, Russia and the United States, and from the Emirates home state of Dubai, where the plane received priority clearance for departure.
There is nothing particularly innovative about airlines tracking near the North Pole to save time and fuel on long-haul flights, though the routes can be tricky because communications and navigation technology are not yet as extensive as they are for standard transoceanic flights.
For decades, the North Pole routes were scarcely used, partly because of the cold war, a time when the Soviet Union was suspicious about aircraft of any type flying over its far northern airspace.
With the end of the cold war, tension abated just as long-haul aircraft became available to serve the growing demand for nonstop travel between cities a half-world apart. United Airlines, for example, had more than 1,400 flights on the polar route last year, up from a dozen in 1999.
Emirates is not alone among the world’s airlines in promoting better environmental thinking. Continental Airlines, for example, plans to conduct a demonstration flight in Houston on Jan. 7 using a 737-800 equipped with engines designed to be powered by a special fuel blend that includes some components derived from plants. (The flight will not carry passengers.)
Emirates, which depends on long-haul Boeing and Airbus jets and heavily promotes its luxurious business-class and first-class cabins on the 12- to 16-hour flights it is known for, clearly wants to position itself as a leader in the industry’s incipient environmental initiatives.
But what about those showers? I’m referring to the latest over-the-top innovation, the recent introduction of two showers for use by first-class passengers on Emirates A380 superjumbo jets. The showers are obviously not an environmental step forward, given the additional fuel needed to carry enough water to let all 14 first-class passengers have two showers, if they want.
In fact, said Andrew J. Parker, an Emirates senior vice president whose duties include the carrier’s environmental affairs, first-class passengers have not been using the showers to the extent Emirates originally anticipated when it allotted 500 kilos (slightly more than half a ton) of weight for the additional water.
Usually, he said, the first-class cabins have been full. But passengers “are using half the allotment” of water. Emirates still carries the full load, but Mr. Parker said that the airline was re-evaluating the requirements and looking into ways to “reprocess water” on board to cut down on the weight and the extra fuel required.
Emirates, by the way, has three A380s in service and another 55 on order from Airbus. Sheik Ahmed said that the airline intended to fly them all configured into three classes, with no more than 500 passengers. (The A380, if flown in an all-coach configuration, is certified to carry almost 900 passengers, but none of the airlines that have ordered the plane have indicated they were considering doing that.)
Meanwhile, it isn’t clear whether the first-class A380 passengers have cut back on showers because of environmental concerns, or merely because they don’t want to take themselves out of their private compartments and away from the free Champagne. Nor is it clear whether they might object to showering in the future with recycled water on that long flight to the other side of the world.
But hey, everybody has to sacrifice.