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Blue-sky thinking: The future of air travel

The move towards sustainable aviation is underway, with new technologies and biofuels already entering the market. But is greener air travel just a flight of fantasy? 

Mike Peake

Here’s an idea: what if an aircraft crossing the Atlantic could fly a short distance behind another one, saving fuel as it “surfed” in its wake?  

Or how about using municipal waste as a fuel source for aircraft or even borrowing from the idea of drones to create a battery-powered four-seater to zip people from one city-centre rooftop to another?

If these sound far-fetched, then think again. This “surfing the slipstream” concept has already been tested by aerospace industry pioneer Airbus, with potential fuel savings of 5 to 10 per cent.

Municipal waste, meanwhile, is one of the many options in the world of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which are currently being blended with standard jet fuels at a growing rate. 

And that drone-like city hopper? A Brazilian company named Eve — which is 80 per cent owned by aerospace manufacturer Embraer — hope to have an eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft like this in the skies in just three years.

When the airline industry announced in October 2021 that it would achieve net zero by 2050 (Finnair aims to be carbon neutral by 2045), it may have sounded like the wildest of pipe dreams.  

The fact is, the sector is already off to a flying start on this long journey.

A mammoth task for the industry 

Net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 is, of course, a mammoth task — not least because it will need someone to figure out how to safely store, use, and fly with hydrogen, one of the leading new fuel options for aircraft, at minus 253 degrees.

When you look at the sheer volume of obstacles that stand between where the industry is today — aviation accounts for 2.5 per cent of global emissions — and where it has pledged to be tomorrow, it’s a challenge that looks almost overwhelming.

But overwhelming doesn’t mean impossible.

“As a company, sustainability means everything to us,” says Airbus’ head of environment & sustainability marketing, Camille Sagues. “Airbus’ purpose says that we pioneer sustainable aerospace for a safe and united world, so that’s our guiding principle.”

Sagues explains that one thing the aviation industry tends to agree on is the “pillars” (methods) that need to be exploited to decarbonise.

In no particular order, Sagues says that sustainable aviation will be achieved by upgrading fleets to the latest generation aircraft, allowing for a more efficient fuel-burn and reduced carbon dioxide emissions; the emergence of new, disruptive technologies; improved airline and aircraft operations and infrastructure; new energy sources such as hydrogen and SAFs; and carbon capture or offsetting.

Airbus spends on average two billion euros a year on R&D, most of it on aircraft efficiency. The manufacturer is evaluating various concepts and maturing the required technologies — and one highlight would certainly be the company’s Blended-Wing Body concept.

It’s a revolutionary hydrogen-powered aircraft concept that resembles a flying V and boasts a highly aerodynamic design.

Another highlight is the company’s new hydrogen-powered turboprop and turbofan aircraft concepts that are being evaluated; Airbus plans to have at least one of these “ZEROe” models in service by 2035.

“We are totally up for the sustainability challenge,” says Sagues, “but it is not just on our shoulders. We can’t do anything alone. The whole ecosystem needs to gear up.”

A suite of solvable problems

The ecosystem of which Sagues speaks has multiple moving parts.

Airports, for example, will need to adapt if they are to supply hydrogen on the tarmac — a hydrogen-powered aircraft without fuel is going nowhere.

Hydrogen, incidentally, is seen by many in aviation as an appealing long-term fuel solution, especially “green hydrogen” which is made with electricity from renewable sources. Both the creation and use of green hydrogen would result in zero carbon dioxide emissions.

Henri Hansson, senior vice president of airport infrastructure, sustainability, safety and security at Finavia, which maintains and develops Finland’s airport network, says that all of the challenges that airports will face appear solvable. In Finland at least.

“We can implement the infrastructures needed to provide sustainable aviation fuels,” he says, “and we don’t see a problem being able to provide electricity for electric aviation. With hydrogen, it’s too early to say if it could ever be produced at the airport, but I don’t see anything to delay the storage of hydrogen for fuel cells if and when the airlines start using them. That said, we’d need to study the safety side first.”

Many of Europe’s airports, he notes, are already among the most advanced in the world when it comes to embracing sustainable aviation. Finavia, for example, is a carbon-neutral company that aims to achieve net zero by 2025.  

Like Sagues, Hansson says everyone in the industry must work on sustainability together. There’s a very strong need, he says, for worldwide standards that would cover such mundane but critically important things as specifications for electric chargers, for example.

It is for this very reason that Finavia is already involved in the regulatory processes that will govern the skies of tomorrow.

A golden economic opportunity  

And what a sky of relief this could be! Rodrigo Silva e Souza, vice president of marketing at Embraer, sees electric, hybrid, and hydrogen solutions powering his company’s next-gen aircraft.  

And a long-established — yet still agile — company like Embraer, he feels, has the chance to outmanoeuvre bigger aircraft manufacturers who may not have the same flexibility or the expertise in commercialising smaller aircraft on which these new technologies will be deployable first. Startups, meanwhile, may be overwhelmed by the complexities of certification and regulations.

Embraer is facing the green aviation challenge head-on — not least because it represents an important business opportunity. “We take sustainability incredibly seriously,” says Silva e Souza, “and while we are committed to net zero, we look at sustainability from an economic standpoint, too.”

The whole sector, he points out, stands to benefit from a shift towards sustainable aviation. The rollout of sustainable aviation fuel, the arrival of synthetic e-fuels (though not likely to be used in meaningful quantities until the 2030s), the development of innovative new aircraft, changes to airport infrastructure — all will take time but will ultimately result in the creation of untold thousands of new jobs.

Any downsides? Of course, there will be turbulence ahead. All this activity is likely to put a pause on bargain airfares for a while.

“Going green is not cheap!” says Silva e Souza. “It’s going to require a lot of investment — billions from the aircraft manufacturers and trillions from the airports. But we have to go through it. There is no other way.”

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