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Delta’s latest climate collaboration tackles warming contrails with MIT

If successful, this work could drive significant progress quickly in reducing the climate impact of aviation by preventing the creation of persistent contrail formations altogether.

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Editor's note: Delta outlined a roadmap to more sustainable travel on March 7, 2023 that details the airline's strategy for achieving net-zero emissions and more sustainable travel by 2050.

Delta’s Chief Sustainability Officer Pam Fletcher outlines the company’s bold strategy for achieving net zero-emissions and more sustainable travel by 2050, including scaling the sustainable fuel market, innovating for the fleet of the future, addressing single-use plastics and encouraging net-zero supply chains.
INTERACTIVE | Path to sustainability

  • Delta and MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics to test methods and develop tools to eliminate persistent contrails, which are about 10% of all contrails and thought to be one of aviation’s largest environmental impacts.
  • Avoiding air space prone to producing persistent warming contrails could quickly reduce aviation’s climate impact over the next few years by around 80%.
  • The study’s findings and technology will be publicly released and published under an open-source license, helping the industry study and curtail the adverse effects of contrails.

Delta is collaborating with MIT on a quest to prevent persistent contrails, which are roughly 10% of all contrails and create long-standing clouds that trap heat and warm the earth. If successful, this work could drive significant progress quickly in reducing the climate impact of aviation by preventing the creation of persistent contrail formations altogether.

“While the journey to decarbonizing aviation is uncharted, we know it will take short-, medium- and long-term solutions to reach our net zero goal. That’s why this work is both exciting and critical – it has the potential to make a major impact on our environmental footprint within just a few years,” said Pam Fletcher, Delta’s Chief Sustainability Officer. “By making our data and solutions available publicly, we’re encouraging creators, innovators and industry cohorts everywhere to join in our efforts to make fast, lasting progress for our planet.”

Past trials and simulations show that about 80% of persistent contrails could be avoided through flight altitude adjustments with minimal additional fuel burn. As such, contrail avoidance could be among the most immediate and cost-effective measures for reducing aviation’s climate footprint.

The study will harness an MIT-created algorithm that predicts altitudes and locations where contrails are likely to form. The collaboration will study the causes of persistent contrails, assess the environmental impact and test possible solutions to this phenomenon that a growing scientific community considers a significant contributor to aviation’s environmental impact. The tools and technology planned as part of the study are being created under an open-source license, allowing others to join in advancing work on this vital solution for aviation.

“Much of the focus on climate within the aviation field is understandably on carbon dioxide, but contrail avoidance has the potential to greatly reduce the environmental impact of air travel quickly and at low cost,” said Steven Barrett, Director of MIT’s Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment. “This collaboration will help us better understand, predict, and ultimately avoid persistent contrails. Working with airline partners gives us the needed access to flights and operational expertise to conduct successful flight trials.”

Contrails form roughly 65% of the time at cruise altitude, yet only about 10% of those contrails last longer than a few minutes. Contrails are ice clouds that form when aircraft exhaust brings together the condensation of exhaust water vapor and atmospheric water vapor into a cloud. If these clouds are created at certain times during the day and persist for more than a few minutes, they trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere.
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