Delta Air Lines is working with MIT to eliminate what it says is “one of aviation’s largest environmental impacts.” The airline says it wants to help MIT eliminate “persistent contrails,” which it says trap heat and warm the earth. Pam Fletcher, the airline’s chief sustainability officer, says the work could offer almost immediate improvements on the airline industry’s environmental impact without any significant costs. “(It) has the potential to make a major impact on our environmental footprint within just a few years,” she said.
Contrails form on about 65 percent of high-altitude flights but most of them dissipate in a few minutes. About 10 percent linger for hours and spread slowly to form a thin barrier of ice crystals in the atmosphere. By simply avoiding airspace with the conditions conducive to persistent contrail formation, the impact of aviation on climate could be reduced by 80 percent, Fletcher said. To test that theory, researchers need ready access to aircraft that produce contrails. “Working with airline partners gives us the needed access to flights and operational expertise to conduct successful flight trials,” said Steven Barrett, director of MIT’s Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment.