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27 May 2021

A short Carbon History of a Single Route: Aarhus - London

We take a look at a single European route and how its carbon-footprint has changed over the years and what it might look like in the future.

In most conversation about carbon emissions and aviation there tends to be a focus on the problem now (rightfully so) and what we need to do about it but it is also worth highlighting how far, or perhaps how little we have come already.

Let's take a look at a single route that I have flown numerous times over the years and see how it has evolved namely the Aarhus, Denmark to London, UK route. It's short flight, about 1h30m and a little less than 900 km. Aarhus airport is an old converted military airport, 50 mins drive from the centre of Aarhus. The airport is quite big but the terminal is tiny. Even though it's the closest airport to Denmark second largest city, it's by no means our second largest airport. That honour goes to Billund, situated further south. This might have something to do with its proximity to Lego and its better transport connections. Aarhus comes in a distant 4th after Aalborg.

It all started in 1999, when I first came to the UK onboard a Scandinavian Airlines McDonnell Douglas MD-81. This aircraft was the backbone of SAS's domestic and European network, based out of Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo. I arrived in the UK on one of them before the SAS closed down the Aarhus route for good. They never resumed it.

In 2000 Ryanair stepped in and introduced direct flights to London Stansted (SAS flew to Heathrow). Over the years the frequency increased until they had two daily flights, one in the morning and one evening, 7 days week. This route became one of Ryanair's many, manwy trunk routes, connecting small European airports with London and or other big European cities. A few years ago EasyJet tried their luck and started a route to London Gatwick from Aarhus, but that was short lived.

For years I flew this route tucked in a window seat onboard Ryanair's Boeing 737-200, a noisy but unremarkable experience. They eventually replaced these with factory-fresh 737-800. These then had winglets added (those appendices you can see at the end of the wing), which improved their fuel efficiency and the next natural step will be the introduction of the 737 MAX of which Ryanair has 210 on order. The max will replace the -800 over time until I suspect it will be completely phased out over time.

Carbon Comparison

AAR Aarhus Airport
986km
STN London Stansted Airport
  1. RyanairBoeing 737 MAX 8~179 kg CO2

  2. RyanairBoeing 737-800~218 kg CO2

  3. RyanairBoeing 737-200~442 kg CO2

  4. SASBoeing (Douglas) MD-81~263 kg CO2

As you can see from the data above the change to the MAX cannot happen fast enough. The drop in CO₂ from the MD-81, to the 737-200, to the 737-800 are modest at best, 10% and 12% respectively. When the route eventually changes to the MAX it will a 44% drop.

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