(NewsMadura) — Shiny planes have returned to the empty blue skies above 30,000 feet in recent months, opening up travel opportunities as they skim the clouds towards unfiltered sunshine.
On board, safely behind face masks, many passengers have shaken off the old inconveniences of airplane travel in their excitement of being back in the air. Food from airlines has never tasted so good.
And yet something leaves a bitter taste. The world has changed since we last explored it, and one of the most significant changes is the increased concern we have about the damage we’ve done through activities like flying.
Following the agreement of 200 countries at the climate summit to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, the industry is bracing for a crisis as more and more people express concern about the impact of air travel.
Countless airlines have already committed to carbon neutral travel and explore alternative fuels to reduce pollution. Developments in electric aircraft, while still a distant possibility for long-haul flights, have also raised hopes for green air travel.
Net zero CO2 emissions by 2050
So how close are we to flying guilt-free and truly low-impact?
It is certainly an industry priority. At its annual meeting in October, IATA, the International Air Transport Association, approved a resolution supporting net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
IATA thinks that figure won’t be that high, as some emissions will be reduced through the use of cleaner energy sources and better aircraft design.
“One possible scenario is that 65% of the [carbon] will be reduced by sustainable aviation fuels,” Willie Walsh, the former chief of British Airways and now director-general of IATA, said in a press release.
Sustainable fuels, made from materials such as wood waste, tobacco or sugar cane, can already be used in many of today’s newer jet engines without any modification.
Walsh says new propulsion technology, including hydrogen, will account for another 13%, while efficiency gains account for another 3%. The rest, he says, can be addressed “through carbon capture and storage and offsets.”
Sustainable jet fuel
Airlines appear to be on board. British Airways’ parent company, IAG, plans to fuel 10% of its flights with sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) by 2030 and says it will invest $400 million in fuel development over the next 20 years.
In the Gulf, Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways has partnered with Khalifa University, Boeing and jet engine manufacturer SAFRAN to produce sustainable biofuel from salt-tolerant halophyte plants that can be grown in seawater.
In June 2021, London Heathrow became the first major airport in the UK to successfully integrate SAF into its fuel distribution system, with a trial delivery from SAF powering 5-10 short-haul flights.
Over the entire life cycle, sustainable jet fuel reduces up to 80% of greenhouse gas emissions compared to using fossil jet fuel. And that is why its deployment is key to achieving the 2050 goals.
So what’s the downside? An important one is the price. Sustainable jet fuel costs about three times as much as its fossil counterpart. In the pre-Covid era of 2019, less than 200,000 tons of SAF were produced worldwide – a small fraction of the 300 million tons of jet fuel required by commercial airlines in a typical year.
Post-Covid, air travel is already expected to become more expensive due to uncertain demand. Green air travel will likely be even more expensive, which could lead to slower adoption.
Lauren Uppink Calderwood of the WEF discusses the “Clean Skies For Tomorrow” coalition that has pledged to replace 10% of the global aviation fuel supply with sustainable jet fuel by 2030.
The value of offsets
Until less harmful fuel becomes commonplace, fliers can still try to reduce the impact of their travels through offsets – schemes that offset carbon footprints by funding emission reduction projects, such as planting trees, wind farms or methane capture.
Different airlines have their own. Cathay Pacific says its Fly Greener program has offset more than 160,000 tons of CO2 since its launch in 2007 – the equivalent of 30 million taxi rides between Hong Kong International Airport and downtown.
No doubt offsets bring social benefits and help mitigate the problem, but ultimately they’re a form of accounting — they don’t really reduce the amount of carbon that comes out the back of jet engines.
The Compensaid platform developed by the Lufthansa Innovation Hub aims to help passengers take a more direct role in allowing aircraft to fly with less CO2. It will be SWISS and Lufthansa’s main carbon offset option.
In addition to offsetting their emissions through investments in climate protection projects, SWISS travelers can also reduce their CO2 emissions by purchasing sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).
While SAF is expected to do the heavy lifting in aviation’s green revolution, alternative technologies are developing at a rapid pace, especially for the under 1,000 mile market.
Europe’s largest aircraft manufacturer, Airbus, is focusing on hydrogen to change the trajectory of aviation for short- and medium-haul flights.
In a high-profile pivot last year, Airbus switched from a strong focus on developing small electric aircraft to a new initiative exploring the potential of hydrogen.
It unveiled a trio of hydrogen-powered zero-emission airliner concepts, under the ZEROe banner, which could be put into service by 2035.
There are still many obstacles to the broad adoption of hydrogen. For starters, airports don’t have the infrastructure to store and deploy it.
LA-based startup Universal Hydrogen has a solution for that. It is developing a fuel distribution network that will allow hydrogen in modular capsules to be delivered directly to the aircraft by cargo.
It also designs conversion kits that can be retrofitted to existing regional aircraft.
“We see the near-term decarbonisation of regional aviation as a first step and a catalyst that will put the entire industry on track to meet the emissions targets of the Paris Agreement,” said Paul Eremenko, co-founder and CEO of Universal Hydrogen. NewsMadura Travel.
Then there is the hybrid model.
Another LA player, Ampaire Inc, is developing hybrid electrical systems for existing 9 to 19-seat commuter aircraft, such as the Cessna Grand Caravan and Twin Otter.
Tens of thousands of such aircraft would be eligible recipients for the upgrades – in fact, the Union Bank of Switzerland estimates that the global value of hybrid-electric aircraft could reach $178 billion by 2040.
Ampaire recently flew its Electric EEL technology demonstration (a modified six-seat Cessna 337 Skymaster) on a potential airline route from the Orkney Islands to the north of mainland Scotland.
The Electric EEL runs on a combination of battery power and a conventional combustion engine, reducing emissions and operating costs by up to 25%.
It has the potential to change both the economy and ecology of regional aviation.
“Hybrid-electric aircraft accomplish two goals,” explained Susan Ying, Susan Ying, Ampaire’s senior vice president for global operations. In addition to meeting environmental targets, “they can also make current routes more profitable, while lowering fares and strengthening connectivity.”
A view shows what the Alice plane would look like in flight.
Another approach to cleaning the air comes from Washington state-based Eviation Aircraft, which recently unveiled the production version of its nine-passenger all-electric Alice plane, which produces no carbon emissions.
The aircraft, which has a range of 440 miles, is intended for feeder routes and also comes in a freight version – DHL Express has ordered 12 for service in 2024.
While the energy sources are still in development, UK-based Faradair Aerospace is currently working on a design that will squeeze the maximum efficiency out of any fuel.
The 18-passenger BEHA aircraft, made of lightweight composite, can carry a payload of five tons, operate from short runways and have a range of 1,150 miles.
It’s also quiet, powered by counter-rotating prop fans, and has a solar panel for “always on” ground power in the cab.
Business executive and founder Neil Cloughley tells NewsMadura Travel that an initial flight potential is possible for 2024/25, followed by certification for commercial operations in 2027.
The plan, he says, is to use a Honeywell turbo generator based on the Airbus A350 Auxiliary Power Unit (the electricity generator aboard the A350) as the main power source.
This provides the “reduced emissions and noise benefits of replacing twin turboprop operations with all the operational cost savings of electric motor drive, powered by a single efficient generator.”
That means no significant reconfiguration is required to adapt to different fuel types – paving the way for regulatory approval as upgraded systems are introduced.
This, Cloughely says, will “future-proof the asset’s life, ensuring a long operating life without risk of obsolescence in the near future.”
Indeed, in an uncertain world with fuel prices that have never been more volatile, keeping energy options open could be a smart strategy for the aviation sector striving for carbon neutrality.
For aviators, anything that brings true zero-carbon flying closer is likely to be welcome, but as they continue to head out into those blue skies, it’s clear that the promise of impact-free air travel is still a long way off.