Finnair pilot advocates economic flying


Finnair captain Pertti Hämäläinen channels his environmental know-how into promoting more strategic choices in the sky.

Fuel-efficient, sustainable flying is a priority for Finnair. The airline reduced its per-seat emissions by 22 per cent between 1999 and 2009, and aims to bring this figure up to 41 per cent by 2017. 
A primary element of more economical and environmentally-friendly flying is a modern fleet. This autumn Finnair became the world’s first airline to receive an Airbus A321 aircraft with aerodynamic wingtip sharklets that can achieve an additional four per cent reduction on fuel burn on long-haul flights. These aircraft will also be used to transport cargo.
However, the right piloting techniques also play a crucial role in achieving emissions reductions. One of the most widely reported of these is continuous descent approach, which involves reaching an airport in one continuous profile rather than step by step, and allows the aircraft to use less engine power. 
Finnair captain Pertti Hämäläinen, who began his career as a pilot in the 1990s and recently completed a master’s degree in environmental economics, notes that despite the automatization enabled by newer aircraft, pilots should challenge themselves to make active choices towards safer, economical and sustainable aviation during each stage of the journey.

A history of energy thinking

“When I started in the 1990s with DC-9 aircraft, most of the calculations that are done automatically today were carried out manually, by us pilots. Even then everything was done as economically as possible, and things like landings were completed with energy-optimization in mind; we were constantly thinking about the potential energy of the plane,” he says. 
Beyond the technological development of aircraft, tighter standards and regulations partially arise from increased air traffic.
Hämäläinen, who flies Airbus A330/340 aircraft on long-haul routes, says that pilots should make sure that they maintain a solid level of expertise regarding the capacities of each aircraft they fly – “that way you can optimize fuel burn in situations like takeoff and landing,” he says. Despite major improvements in technology, including more accurate calculations, pilots shouldn’t become complacent about actively evaluating each situation. 
Continuous descent approach, for example, is the result of active pilot thinking from decades ago. 
“We learned to challenge ourselves by approaching airports using speed breaks and power as sparingly as possible – we avoided flying in long horizontal segments and dropping down in between,” he says.  
In the latest generation of aircraft, airlines have varied recommendations for using autopilot and obeying FMS (Flight Management System) calculations. 
“Some strongly recommend it during each stage of the flight, so you don’t switch the autopilot off until the latest stages of final approach. In some cases the calculations are optimized for non-continuous descent,” Hämäläinen says.
“At Finnair there is a bit more freedom to make your own choices; I use the calculations as a reference point, but do manual adjustments to the descent profile myself.”

Researching efficient choices

Hämäläinen’s master’s degree thesis, which he completed last spring, studied operative ways to reduce the environmental impact of aviation. Part of his research was the testing of continuous descent approach landings with a modified descent profile on Finnair flights. During these flights, deceleration toward final approach speeds started from a higher altitude than determined in automatic calculations. 
In addition, his research concluded that if a crowded airspace forces a plane to head away from the direction of its destination after takeoff, a pilot should fly with a slower speed and gather altitude, as restrictions for direct clearances often concern altitudes and noise level. This approach helps reduce fuel burn and noise. While taxiing for takeoff, aircraft should also avoid stopping on slight uphill spots of the taxiway in order to conserve fuel.
Hämäläinen says that his graduate school studies have helped him more carefully define his thinking about fuel-efficient flying. 
“I have started assessing each choice, motivated myself to fly better and pushed myself to challenge my own ideas,” he says. “Having experience and expertise enables more economic choices.”
Pertti's interview video on YouTube
Text by Laura Palotie
Photos by iStockphoto and Pertti Hämäläinen's documents

Published October 2, 2013

Category: Environment, Finnair Cargo