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NASA has long been the leading experimenter in future aircraft design. They believe new designs could save airlines $250 billion in coming decades. Along with reducing fuel and pollution by 70 percent, these prototypes make 50 percent less noise than conventional passenger planes. The aircraft shown here is one of several N + 3 designs—aircraft that can be used three generations into the future. Dubbed the Double Bubble, this MIT model places three engines at the rear of a double-wide fuselage, enabling the wings to be smaller and lighter. Rear engine placement allows for smaller engines and reduced weight. Each optimization on large aircraft has cascading benefits to other components, resulting in groundbreaking efficiency.

A century after the first commercial flight, the aviation industry has become a fixture of global transport…and of global emissions. Today, some 20,000 airplanes are in service around the world, producing at minimum 2.5 percent of annual emissions. With upwards of 50,000 planes expected to take to the skies by 2040—and take to them more often—fuel efficiency will have to rise dramatically if emissions are to be reduced.

This can be accomplished by:

  • Adopting the latest and most fuel-efficient aircraft;
  • Retrofitting existing aircraft with aerodynamic winglets, better engines, and lighter interiors;
  • Retiring older aircraft early; and
  • Operating existing aircraft with fuel-saving practices.

More dramatic redesigns of airplane bodies and sustainable jet fuels, such as those made from algae, are in development. Along with national and international regulation of the airline industry, they may help address the greenhouse gases that trail movement by flight.


first commercial flight: Associated Press. “Airline Group Marks 100 Years of Commercial Flight.” NBC News, June 2, 2014.

plane tickets…sold: “In Flight: See the Planes in the Sky Right Now.” The Guardian. January 21, 2014

air freight volume: Airbus. Mapping Demand: Global Market Forecast 2016-2035. Airbus, 2016.

airplanes…in service: Airbus, Mapping; Boeing. Current Market Outlook: 2015-2034. Boeing, 2015.

[airline] annual emissions: Lee, D.S., et al. “Aviation and Global Climate Change in the 21st Century.” Atmospheric Environment 43 (2009): 3520–3537; Schafer, A.W., et al. “Costs of Mitigating CO2 Emissions from Passenger Aircraft.” Nature Climate Change, 6, no. 4 (2016): 412-417. 

planes [in] the skies by 2040: Pearce, Fred. “After Paris, A Move to Rein in Emissions by Ships and Planes.” Yale Environment 360. May 19, 2016.

fuel…operating costs: Grose, Thomas K. “Reshaping Flight for Fuel Efficiency.” National Geographic. April 23, 2013.; Stalnaker, Tom, et al. Airline Economic Analysis: 2015-2016. Oliver Wyman, 2016.

fuel efficiency of domestic flights; international flights: Grose, “Reshaping.”

high rates of air bypass: BDL. Report 2014—Energy Efficiency and Climate Change, Berlin: Bundesverband der Deutschen Luftverkehrswirtschaft (German Aviation Association), 2015.

Pratt & Whitney…turbofan engine: Grose, “Reshaping.” 

Rolls-Royce…lightweight engines: BDL, Report 2014.

“winglets” and…“sharklets”: BDL, Report 2014; Davies, Alex. “Planes Have to Get More Efficient. Here’s How to Do It.” Wired. June 11, 2015.

split scimitar winglets: BDL, Report 2014.

Boeing and NASA…aircraft: Boeing. “Blended Wing Body Back to the Tunnel.” Boeing, September 7, 2016.

wing design with a brace: NASA. “Slimmed Down Aircraft Wing Expected to Reduce Fuel and Emissions by 50%.” National Aeronautics and Space Administration. November 9, 2016.

dramatic redesigns…efficiency gains: Grose, “Reshaping.”

taxiing on a single engine: Deonandan, Indira, and Hamsa Balakrishnan. “Evaluation of Strategies for Reducing Taxi-out Emissions at Airports.” 10th AIAA Aviation Technology, Integration, and Operations (ATIO) Conference, Fort Worth, Texas, 2010.

continuous and late descent: BDL, Report 2014.

airline captains…fuel efficient practices: Gosnell, Greer K., John A. List, Robert Metcalfe. A New Approach to an Age-Old Problem: Solving Externalities by Incenting Workers Directly. NBER Working Paper No. 22316. Cambridge, M.A.: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2016.

sustainable aviation fuels: Rocky Mountain Institute. “Sustainable Aviation.”

fuel efficiency and airline profitability: Zeinali, Mazyar, Daniel Rutherford, Irene Kwan, and Anastasia Kharina. U.S. Domestic Airline Fuel Efficiency Ranking 2010. Washington, D.C.: International Council on Clean Transportation, 2013.

Carbon Offset and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation: Milman, Oliver. “First Deal to Curb Aviation Emissions Agreed in Landmark UN Accord.” The Guardian, October 6, 2016.

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p. 150

Correction: The pollutants that trail movement by flight—carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, water vapor in contrails, black carbon—are not.

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