Delta works with MIT to study impact of airplane contrails on climate

Delta Air Lines said Thursday it will work with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a study examining the environmental impact of airplane contrails.

The focus of the study is how to eliminate persistent contrails, which make up about 10% of all contrails and create clouds that trap heat and warm the earth, according to Delta.

Contrails form about 65% of the time when planes are at cruise altitude and aircraft exhaust water vapor combines with atmospheric water vapor to form clouds of ice crystals, yet only 10% last longer than a few minutes. Those persistent contrails are believed to be “one of aviation’s largest environmental impacts,” according to Delta.

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One method to reduce the persistent contrails could be flying at different altitudes to avoid airspace that produces them, which Delta said could reduce the impact of aviation on the climate “by around 80%.”

Delta’s chief sustainability officer Pam Fletcher said in a written statement that the work “has the potential to make a major impact on our environmental footprint within just a few years.”

MIT will use an algorithm it created to predict where contrails are likely to form.

“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, in a written statement. He added that contrail avoidance “has the potential to greatly reduce the environmental impact of air travel quickly and at low cost.”

MIT plans to release the findings and technology created under an open-source license so others can use them.