Did you know that fuel is now the largest component of operating costs for airlines? If you read aviation news articles, you might have read about that. So what are airlines doing to help save fuel? For one, they are buying new aircraft, if they can afford it; the latest technology aircraft burn fuel more efficiently — and that means less fuel is used. Also, since 2001, hundreds of jetliners worldwide have been outfitted with upswept wingtips that increase range and make the aircraft more aerodynamically efficient. That can save up to 7% on fuel costs. Pilots also routinely taxi to and from the runway on one engine only, to save fuel and operate planes’ auxiliary-power units as little as possible.
Here’s the latest fuel efficiency tactic: Pratt & Whitney’s engine-washing system, called EcoPower, has recently been shown to be a potential fuel saver. The system is mounted on trucks, so it can be used at the gate. Scouring caked-on grime from the inside of an engine can reduce fuel consumption by about 1.2%. No big deal, you say? Well, listen to the statistics: If every airline in the world washing its engines, the industry could save about $1 billion (yes, that’s billion) a year in fuel costs and also cut carbon-dioxide emissions by 3.2 billion pounds.
Clean engines run cooler too, which allows airlines to avoid costly overhauls for up to 18 additional months. Southwest Airlines and United, which are two of Eco-Power’s biggest customers, say they are indeed realizing savings already with EcoPower. Southwest said that in less than two months of use, they have saved about $1.6 million in fuel. United, which plans to wash the engines of its entire fleet at least twice a year (and its long-haul aircraft more often) anticipates saving about three million gallons of fuel annually.
Here’s the engineering behind this: During thousands of operating hours, pollutants in the air builds up an oily crust on the jet engine’s fan blades, which compress air before it enters the combustion chamber. Over time, the engine becomes less efficient and then starts to run at hotter temperatures, which increases wear and burns more fuel.