Can airlines cut their fuel costs by changing they way they fly?

An $865 million chunk of funding in the Department of Transportation's budget for next year may help answer that question. That's how much the Obama Administration has pledged toward a "Next Generation Air Transportation System," or NextGen aimed at modernizing the nation's air traffic control infrastructure.

While the main goal of the program is to make air traffic safer and more efficient, that can come with big fuel savings, as planes reduce time spent waiting to take off and land, as well as take more direct paths toward the ground, reducing fuel burned in inefficient descend-and-level-off flight paths common today.

That's the business of Kent, Wash.-based Naverus Inc. The 2003 startup founded by former Alaska Airline pilots has developed technology to allow airliners to follow more efficient flight paths.

In one test of Southwest Airline flights between the Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth airports, flights were able to shave 8 percent off their fuel use, said spokesman Ken Shapero. Another test by Qantas airline at Australia's Brisbane airport showed an 18-percent reduction in fuel burned during landing, he said.

It's good for the airline industry's bottom line as well as for the environment. The airline industry makes up about 2 percent of the United States' greenhouse gas emissions, according to the industry group Air Transport Association – and fuel accounts for about 40 percent of the airline industry's expenses, the association says.

Fuel-saving retrofits aren't limited to software. Aviation Partners Boeing – a joint venture of Aviation Partners Inc. and Boeing Co. – builds winglets, the vertical fins seen at the wingtips of an increasing number of airliners. That simple addition can reduce fuel burn enough to shave up to 6 percent of a typical flight's greenhouse-gas emissions, the company says.

Other companies, such as ITT Corp., are developing technology for more accurate tracking of planes in flight, which could help them to fly more direct paths between takeoff and landing.

The NextGen funding is part of the Transportation Department's $73.3 billion budget for 2010, which includes other potentially green goodies like $5 billion for high-speed rail development over five years.

Tags: airline fuel, airlines, enterprise, funding, greenhouse gas emissions, naverus department, savings, southwest airlines, transportation