When climate change is discussed, it’s usually not long before the impact of global aviation is raised. While it’s easy to understand how hydrocarbon-burning jet engines contribute to CO2 emissions, the effect of contrails has only recently become understood.

Contrails are those very visible, seemingly innocent streaks left behind by aircraft flying at high altitudes. Given the right combination of temperature, humidity, wind and high altitude air stability, contrails can persist for hours and cause ‘climate forcing’. This means they influence the radiative balance of the atmosphere, reflecting heat down towards the surface with harmful global climate change implications.

A surprising impact on climate change

Dr Adam Durant, Founder and CEO of SATAVIA, says non-CO2 emissions, such as contrails, account for almost two-thirds of the aviation industry’s global warming impact. This equates to a highly significant 2% of all human-generated climate change. Fortunately, SATAVIA has the solution to hand.

The Cambridge-based startup applies data analytics and atmospheric and climate science to make aviation greener, modelling the atmosphere from surface to space to enable a host of high-impact use cases. SATAVIA’s contrail prevention platform, DECISIONX:NETZERO, enables eco-conscious aircraft operators to forecast and prevent contrail formation in day-to-day flight operations. SATAVIA subsequently quantifies achieved climate benefit for conversion into tradable carbon credits, incentivising contrail prevention in a new market worth up to $18bn (CBI figures).

Putting contrail prevention into practice

DECISIONX:NETZERO forecasts atmospheric conditions at multiple flight levels and optimises operator flight plans to avoid contrail-forming regions. During 2021, SATAVIA, Etihad Airways and Boeing proved the concept by conducting a ground-breaking commercial flight, the EY20 Sustainable Flight, that avoided over 64 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) via contrail prevention.

Etihad Airways is now working with SATAVIA and air navigation service providers NATS and Eurocontrol to regularly alter flights paths to prove the sustainability of the system. If the tests continue to be successful, Etihad will use DECISIONX:NETZERO to analyse its entire flight schedule, predict contrail creation and automatically determine flight trajectories to avoid them, expanding the art of the possible in routine commercial aviation.

Providing accurate prediction

As Durant says, “It’s all about relating weather patterns to specific flights to find where contrails are going to be prevalent. Only about 5% of all flights will form persistent contrails, so if you can manage these to avoid them you tackle 90% of the problem.”

Airlines using SATAVIA’S DECISIONX:NETZERO could soon claim carbon credits for prevented CO2e, providing much-needed commercial incentives to make aviation greener in day-to-day operations. SATAVIA is now working with global carbon accreditation bodies and leading carbon exchanges to develop and validate accreditation methodologies, laying the groundwork for scaling greener flight operations across the commercial aviation sector.

Incentivising other airlines

Durant points out, “We all want to solve real world problems, but there’s a lot more to that than throwing science at it. If it doesn’t cost money or make money, it’s hard to get business to care. As the price of carbon rises, there’s more incentive for airlines to fly smarter and greener. With our model, we not only assess a flight plan and help make changes that lower aviation’s climate impact, but we also estimate what a company can save in associated carbon credits and carbon offsets.”

Funding a green tech leader

SATAVIA has won over £3.5 grant funding since 2015 from INNOVATE UK, Aerospace Technology Institute and the European Space Agency. Dr Durant also closed a Pre-Series A round of £1m in January 2020 and a convertible round in 2021.