Using Google’s AI, American Airlines reduced contrails by 54%

American Airlines participated in a project to reduce contrails, which have a warming effect on the climate
Soos Jozsef /

Google, American Airlines and Breakthrough Energy, who have been working together to look for solutions on the reduction of contrails, have now managed to do so with the help of Artificial Intelligence (AI). 

The project, led by Google Research, saw all three parties participating in research to find out whether AI could help airlines to reduce their climate warming impact by avoiding routes where contrails could form. According to the announcement, American Airlines’ pilots flew over 70 test flights over a period of six months. 

During the flights, the flight crews used Google’s AI-based predictions that were cross-referenced with Breakthrough Energy’s open-source contrail models, enabling crews to avoid altitudes where the likelihood of contrails forming is increased. 

“After these test flights, we analyzed satellite imagery and found that the pilots were able to reduce contrails by 54%,” the announcement read, adding that the research is “the first proof point that commercial flights can verifiably avoid contrails and thereby reduce their climate impact”. 

However, the avoidance of contrail-forming altitudes resulted in an average fuel consumption increase of 2%. On the other hand, Google cited a recent study that showed that “a small percentage of flights need to be adjusted to avoid the majority of contrail warming”, resulting in a potential total fuel consumption increase of 0.3%. 

“This suggests that contrails could be avoided at scale for around $5-25/ton CO2e [carbon dioxide equivalent] using our existing predictions, making it a cost-effective warming-reduction measure, and further improvements are expected,” Google said. 

Contrails form when aircraft fly through humid air, resulting in cirrus clouds that remain in the air for “minutes or hours depending on the atmospheric conditions”, according to the statement. While the clouds can reflect additional sunlight, “they also trap large amounts of heat that would otherwise leave the Earth’s atmosphere”, creating a net warming effect. 

“Avoiding flying through areas that create contrails can reduce warming. The challenge is knowing which flight routes will create contrails,” Google concluded, with the company citing a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that said that contrails’ warming impact is almost half that of jet fuel. 

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