How do we fly in the future?
A lot of expectations are placed on the technologies of the future in solving the emission challenges of flying. When can we expect electric planes or synthetic fuels to be commonplace?
"New tools for reducing emissions are coming, but there are no quick solutions, technology development takes time," says Finnair's Senior Sustainability Manager Tuomo Karppinen. "Now in the 2020s, it is important to increase the production volumes of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), develop more fuel-efficient aircraft technology and enable the use of different energy options in flying. New aircraft technologies and the energy transition to green hydrogen will take place in the 2030s. However, we will still need offsetting even in the 2040s in order to bring the net emissions of flying to zero."
Are renewable fuels (sustainable aviation fuel, SAF) the key to flight emissions?
Sustainable aviation fuels play an important role in solving the emission issues of flying: every litre of renewable fuel directly reduces the need for fossil fuel by the same amount. SAF can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to 90% compared to fossil fuel. However, the large-scale use of SAF is still limited due to its high price and limited availability.
SAF is on average 3 to 5 times more expensive than fossil fuel, and fuel costs are the airline's biggest expenses. Currently, Finnair does not regularly fly with SAF, but our goal is to increase the use of SAF in the future - for example, we gave our customers the opportunity to offset the emissions of their flights by purchasing SAF, and as part of the oneworld alliance, we have already signed purchase agreements with two different operators from California for the end of this decade. In Finland, our partner in SAF is Neste.
In the development of renewable fuels, the key is the availability of sustainable and responsible raw materials and the price of green energy. The need and demand for renewable fuels currently exceed the global production capacity many times over, and it is reflected in the price of raw materials and fuel. Various bio-based materials can be used as raw materials for SAF, such as cellulose, used cooking oil or other solid waste, or directly the basic inorganic raw materials of hydrocarbons, i.e. carbon (carbon dioxide) and hydrogen. The development of different production technologies is happening at a fast pace, but there is still a long way to go for mass production of renewable fuels using different technologies - this also requires global, regional, and national incentives alongside with concrete industry investments.
When will Finnair's network see the first electric flights?
Electric flying still requires a lot of development work, and it won't be a solution for many years in our network, where even short flights are relatively long for electric planes. However, we follow the development of electric airplanes with interest. Cooperation between airlines and aircraft developers is essential in the development and design phase, but at the moment we have no plans to introduce electric aircraft into our fleet.
Developing new aircraft technology is complex and time-consuming. Electric flying will require not only development work in aircraft and battery technology but also investments in aviation infrastructure, starting with the charging stations at airports.
We have previously said that we see the potential for the 19-seater electric aircraft under development by Heart Aerospace for our short routes. However, Heart Aerospace has recently changed the development direction of its project and is now preparing a larger hybrid aircraft that combines the use of liquid fuel and electricity, so we have not renewed our previous Letter of Interest.
What role will hydrogen play in the future?
Hydrogen contains three times more energy per weight than kerosene and offers a significant weight-for-weight advantage over electric flying. The challenge of hydrogen is the larger volume it needs, and thus either a larger aircraft frame or a smaller transport capacity. Hydrogenation can therefore offer a low-emissions alternative for longer distances than, for example, electricity. However, for long-haul flights of several thousand kilometres, it makes economic sense to fly with liquid fuels for a long time in the future as well.
Developing new aircraft technology is time-consuming and challenging, but so is building energy infrastructure. Airplanes must be able to refuel the energy they need at both ends of the route. The big question for the world's airports is whether they should develop refuelling options for all the different energy options that airplanes will use in the future: SAF, kerosene, hydrogen and electricity? The more comprehensive the global energy infrastructure is, the better airlines can plan for future deployment of aircraft technology.
What is happening now in aircraft development?
In recent years, attention has been paid to reducing the weight of aircraft, which has a direct impact on fuel consumption and thus emissions. In the new aircraft, emission efficiency can also be obtained from more advanced engines - for example, the A350 aircraft is up to 25% more fuel efficient than its predecessors. The development of aerodynamics is also important and, for example, the shape of the winglets at the tips of the wings and new surface materials can reduce air resistance and thus fuel consumption.
Completely new aircraft and engine concepts are also being developed. For example, interesting development projects are seen around the so-called Open Rotor -technology and hydrogen-fueled gas turbines. Revolutionary aircraft technologies are also being researched by aircraft manufacturers all the time, and the construction of aircraft related to hydrogen and electric flying is highly anticipated in the industry.