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Fuel pump relay

Despite the record-low fuel prices, airlines are not resting on their laurels, finds Ian Putzger. Fuel saving initiatives remain a constant priority

The current low price of oil is not the only reason why Bombardier's new C Series aircraft has struggled to attract orders. The aircraft’s 20% fuel burn advantage over rival models currently in production, as claimed by its manufacturer, has clearly lost some of its pull, with oil stubbornly south of the $50 a barrel mark. Usman Ahmed, Senior Analyst at consultancy firm International Bureau of Aviation, notes that a lot of aircraft that were parked have been brought back into service.


"Rather than attain 10-15% savings by replacing aircraft, at current fuel costs airlines can now achieve the same with older aircraft, although the maintenance costs do go up, of course," he says. "The focus has slightly shifted, but that may not be for long."


Decisions to order new aircraft may have been pushed back, but the low oil price has not shifted the focus of airlines on fuel economy into a lower gear, according to Rudolf Christen, one of the founders of Aviaso, a provider of fuel efficiency software which has recently been acquired by Honeywell. "We were a bit afraid that might happen, but it hasn’t at all. We did not see any shift in priority," he says. "Fuel cost may be lower, but it is still an extremely big budget item."


Porter Airlines has put some fuel saving initiatives in place in recent months, says Brad Cicero, Manager of Corporate Communications & Public Relations. "I don't think you can wait for fuel prices to go up," he adds.


At Southwest Airlines, fuel economy initiatives have continued regardless of fuel price levels, states Lori Crabtree, a spokesperson for the carrier. Southwest has seen about a 4% improvement in fuel efficiency over the past two years, she reports.


Southwest has been using Scimitar winglets on its Boeing 737-800 fleet, which has resulted in fuel savings, Crabtree notes. Air Transat, which installed Scimitar winglets in 2014, has realised fuel burn reductions between 1-3% – in line with expectations, reports Debbie Cabana, Marketing Director, Social Media & Public Relations. "Operationally, the SSWS [referring to the winglets] equipped aircraft are performing well. Take-off performance has been very good," she adds. Including the structural wing modification, the installation took about 1,000 man-hours over four days.


Sharklets and winglets should produce between 3.5-4% fuel savings, with Scimitar winglets another 1.5-2%, remarks Ahmed. He notes that some operators are thinking of installing spiroid winglets, which should generate additional savings, though "we are not seeing a lot of enthusiasm on that market," he adds.


According to IATA, average savings of about 5% are achievable for most airlines through fuel economy initiatives. Although, for the most part, the low hanging fruit have been plucked, remarks Christen. He stresses the importance of having a good understanding of fuel efficiency. IATA's Guidance Material and Best Practices for Fuel and Environmental Management is a valuable source of information, but airlines should also consult the material produced by the aircraft manufacturers, he says.


Air Transat, which introduced its fuel management programme back in 2003, has achieved a 5% reduction in fuel burn through it. The programme has four major components: a reduction in the weight of the aircraft, flight plan optimisation, improved efficiency in ground operations, and maintenance.


Ahmed sees much focus on the cost benefits that can be achieved on the maintenance side for many airlines at this stage. Air Transat found that more frequent engine washes can produce "significant gains".


Measures for weight reduction deployed by the Canadian airline range from lighter-weight life jackets and cargo containers, to a strategic approach to loading baggage and cargo. This approach positions baggage in the hold to shift the aircraft's centre of gravity slightly aft, improving the aircraft's performance by modifying the angle of attack. Ahmed also remarks that lighter containers weigh about 1kg less than standard units, which adds up to substantial savings over a year.


In addition, to bring down weight, Air Transat has reduced the amount of drinking water it carries on board, as well as the amount of other products, depending on the destination. Elsewhere, Southwest has saved 400,000 gallons of fuel by replacing pilot kit bags with electronic flight bags, Crabtree states.


For flight plan optimisation, Air Transat is using a software application that assesses a greater number of variables, says Cabane. The airline set up a task force that can determine flight plans with greater precision through this tool, which results in about 500kg of fuel savings per flight.


In order to take advantage of the higher temperature resistance of carbon brakes compared to steel brakes, Air Transat has instituted a policy of deceleration after landing through idle reverse thrust, as opposed to maximum reverse thrust, which reduces both fuel consumption and noise.  >>

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