White cloud streaks high up in the sky are one of the ways you can tell a plane has been overhead. These condensation trails, or contrails, form when hot exhaust gases meet colder, low-pressure air in the atmosphere at certain humidity levels and at very specific altitudes. And although they can form striking patterns in the sky, these contrails and the cirrus clouds they induce, impact climate change, possibly greater than the effect from CO2 emissions.

A recent study by researchers at Imperial College London suggested that changing the altitude of just 1.7 per cent of flights by 2,000 ft could reduce contrails’ climate impact by nearly 60 per cent.

And now our R&D and Sustainable Operations teams at NATS are working with Imperial and the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) to investigate the link between where aircraft fly and contrail formation in the airspace we manage.

Building on the research already conducted by Imperial, along with DLR we hope to understand what contrail formation means for our operation over the Atlantic Ocean and how we could implement avoidance strategies without increasing fuel consumption, and CO2 emissions.

By predicting where supersaturated air is going to form over the Atlantic and using Oceanic flight data, we will investigate the possibility of avoiding these areas, either by airlines flight planning around them or by managing air traffic flows tactically to minimise contrail formation. This work with our research partners will help to establish the requirements needed for a potential future contrail avoidance demonstration flight in Shanwick airspace.

As a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society’s Greener by Design group, we are working with industry and academic partners to enhance an aviation climate impact model for non-CO2 emissions. Engaging with other industry partners, including the Aerospace Technology Institute, we hope to support a programme of research focussed on aviation non-CO2 impacts.

This is all part of our commitment to “build back better” from the devastating effect of the pandemic on our industry, and as part of our commitment to the industry’s path to net zero by 2050. Knowledge sharing and research collaborations with universities and industry partners are fundamental to achieving that.


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Sue Spink

A thought stimulating article, thank you. I am wondering if the impact could be reduced when Bio-fuel or Hydrogen is utilised?


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