Embracing AI: A Modern Solution to the Contrail Dilemma

We’re looking at the groundbreaking efforts that bring together the might of AI, aviation, and advanced climate modelling.

Written by Cameron Kelly on 27 September, 2023

The evolving landscape of climate research consistently presents us with challenges that require adaptation, innovation, and the pursuit of sustainable solutions. Groundbreaking efforts are underway that synergize the power of AI, aviation, and advanced climate modelling, all aimed at addressing one of the lesser-known contributors to global warming: aircraft contrails.

- Never heard of radiative forcing and contrails? It can account for 45% of the warming effect of an aircraft’s emissions. Read about it in part 1 and part 2 of this series here.

The AI Solution to the Contrail Challenge

It's no secret that the white streaks left behind by aircraft—known as contrails—contribute to radiative forcing. Recent collaborations between tech giant Google, American Airlines, and Breakthrough Energy have shown that tackling this issue doesn't require drastic changes. Even with minor route adjustments, like dropping a couple of thousand feet in altitude, we can make a significant difference without affecting the passenger experience or flight time.

By harnessing AI-based predictions combined with open-source contrail models, flight crews are provided with optimised routes that drastically diminish the likelihood of contrail formation. The result of this innovation? An impressive 54% reduction in contrail formation during test flights. This breakthrough not only represents a significant move towards a more sustainable aviation sector but also showcases the transformative power of AI in addressing environmental challenges.

The Cost-Benefit Analysis

While the meticulous avoidance of contrail-friendly altitudes might lead to a 2% uptick in fuel consumption, this should be contextualized with the bigger picture in mind. Google's findings emphasize that tweaking just a fraction of global flights can bypass a significant chunk of contrail-induced warming. Consequently, the net increase in fuel consumption is a modest 0.3%. In terms of monetary costs, contrail avoidance might equate to an expenditure of around $5-25/ton CO2e. To put this in perspective, these figures make contrail optimization more cost-effective than traditional carbon offsetting and substantially cheaper, up to 50 times, compared to the adoption of sustainable aviation fuel.

The Role of Public Policy

Emissions, particularly those from aviation, are a classic example of externalities in economic terms. As the intricacies of contrail formation become widely understood and the slight rise in fuel costs becomes apparent, public policy will inevitably play a pivotal role in guiding industry behaviour. If contrail optimization, despite its minimal 2% increase in fuel costs, isn't integrated into public policy, there's a real risk it might be sidestepped by airlines more focused on short-term financials than long-term environmental stewardship.

Impact on Business Travel

Herein lies the future promise for corporations. The prospect of up-to a 54% reduction in radiative forcing emissions offers businesses a glimpse of the sizable reductions they could achieve. While the complete set of tools for Travel Managers to harness innovation such as this aren't yet fully realized, their evolution is on a rapid trajectory. This acceleration, crucially, is enabled by the growing accuracy and granularity of emissions data. As the technological landscape matures, Travel Managers will be increasingly equipped to interweave these advanced insights, laying the foundation for a more sustainable future of corporate travel.

An action list for the travel manager

With the advent of these emerging tools and enhanced data accuracy, Travel Managers are presented with an unprecedented opportunity. They can not only meet, but also significantly reduce their company's travel footprint. As we pivot into this new era of sustainable travel, here's how contrail optimisation can be leveraged to reduce your business's travel impact:

- Demonstrate to your vendors that contrail formation is important to your business by adding questions about contrail optimisation a part of your airline vendor RFPs.

- Let vendor stakeholders know that contrail optimisation should be prioritised before your business purchases SAF. Tied together, SAF and contrail optimisation could substantially reduce your business’s emissions.

- Lobby your industry associations, such as GBTA and ITM, to demand contrail optimisation from vendors.

- Request information from your key airline vendors about their contrail optimisation on a route-by-route basis. Without this data, it would be difficult to introduce contrail optimisation reductions into your carbon reporting.

- Use a powerful carbon calculation tool, such as the Thrust Calculator, which will let you customise radiative forcing multipliers for those vendors that are optimising their route planning.


The intersection of technology and environmental responsibility charts the course for the future of sustainable business travel. As we advance, embracing such innovations and integrating them into our travel strategies will not only reduce our carbon footprint but also pave the way for a future where business and environment coexist harmoniously.

Stay with us as we continue to decode the intricacies of sustainable travel, providing insights, tools, and strategies that align with both business objectives and planetary well-being. The journey toward a greener tomorrow is a collective one, and every step counts.

This blog is one of a 3-part series on radiative forcing. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.

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