Smoother airplane landing pattern conserves fuel

By Michelle Dunlop, Herald Writer

It’s the way airplanes were designed to land — in a smooth, continuous movement.

“An airplane wants to glide down,” said Rob Mead with the Boeing Co.

Mead has spent much of the past few years working with the aviation industry to change the way the country’s air traffic management system allows aircraft to land at airports. He’s won international recognition for his ideas. Ultimately, the “tailored arrival” approach will cut fuel use, reduce emissions and save Boeing’s airline customers money.

At most airports today, airplanes land using a step-down approach — descending and then leveling off, descending further and leveling off again.

“Every time you force (an airplane) to slow down to level off, there’s extra gas being burned,” Mead said.

Tailored approach landings are made possible through aircraft and ground automation that plans the landing specifically for the type of aircraft. Landings made using this method save as much as 43 percent of the fuel the jets would have burned during the landing process if using the standard step-down method.

Generally, the systems needed for tailored arrivals require very little cost or change to the aircraft, Mead said.

Several of the airports on the country’s coasts, including San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami, have tested tailored arrivals. Ten airlines are participating in the trials with the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA will begin testing tailored arrivals at interior (non-coastal) airports in 2012.

In 3,500 flights that used the tailored approach for landings, about 3.1 million pounds of fuel were saved, Mead said. By burning less fuel, carbon dioxide emissions are reduced, which is good for the environment. The method also makes for quieter landings, Mead said.

Boeing sees tailored approach landings as a bridge in the nation’s air traffic management system until the FAA overhauls the system in 2025 with “NextGen” technology and procedures.

“This is really a building block for NextGen,” Mead said.

Why does a plane manufacturer, like Boeing, care so much about the air traffic management system?

The fuel savings “puts our customers in a better position to buy our aircraft,” Mead said.