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American Airlines Teams Up with Google to Cut Contrails Using AI

Early results of the study show pilots were able to reduce contrail formation by 54 percent, which could have significant impacts for the future of sustainable commercial flights

by Fergus Cole

August 10, 2023

Photo: Courtesy of Tijs Van Leur / Unsplash

American Airlines has been participating in a trial along with Google and Breakthrough Energy to determine whether contrails can be avoided, and they now claim that they have managed to reduce them by 54 percent with the help of AI.

The study has been led by Google Research and Breakthrough Energy—a U.S. firm specializing in developing sustainable energy technologies—with the support of American Airlines.

Google’s AI system confidently pinpoints atmospheric zones that trigger aircraft contrail production, utilizing satellite imagery, weather data, and flight information. The system intelligently assesses whether pilots can steer clear of these zones to minimize contrails’ formation effectively.

Photo: Courtesy of Joachim Süß / Unsplash

The project is being conducted to reduce the environmental impact of commercial flights, as contrails can cause significant warming of the atmosphere. Contrails are produced by aircraft when they fly through areas of high humidity, and while some can disperse in minutes, others can linger and form cirrus clouds, depending on the conditions. These clouds can trap heat in the earth’s lower atmosphere at night, contributing to global warming.

The study involved a small group of American Airlines pilots operating 70 flights over six months, all the while responding to AI-based predictions about atmospheric areas that potentially cause harmful contrails and adapting their flight route accordingly.

Using satellite imagery, Google Research found that its AI predictions enabled the pilots to reduce contrail formation by 54 percent, in terms of overall distance, compared to flights that didn’t use the projections. But while this technology is still in its infancy and more widescale testing needs to be done, American Airlines and Google Research were confident in their claims that this is the first evidence that pilots can actively and effectively avoid the formation of contrails while flying.

Photo: Airbus A321neo on delivery from Toulouse. Courtesy of Airbus SAS

“American is grateful for the opportunity to work with our partners at Google Research and Breakthrough Energy to help advance the science on contrail avoidance,” said Jill Blickstein, Vice President of Sustainability at American Airlines.

“The results from this small-scale test are encouraging, and while clearly there are more questions to answer about how to operationalize contrails avoidance across our industry, we’re excited to have played a role in establishing this first proof point. And we’re looking forward to sharing what we learned with stakeholders in the aviation industry and beyond.”

Juliet Rothenberg, head of product for Climate AI at Google Research, said: “Our contrail predictions combine the latest in AI research with massive amounts of satellite imagery, weather data and flight data.

“We now have the first proof point that commercial flights can use these predictions to avoid contrails, as verified in satellite imagery. We’re grateful for our partnership with American Airlines and Breakthrough Energy – together we’ve taken a significant step towards understanding a high-potential climate solution.”