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How Airlines Can Meet Sustainability Targets

  • by: Jenna Beard
  • On: 21, Sep 2020
7 min read

Aerospace and Aviation generates 2% of the world’s carbon emissions, with one flight producing more CO2 than the average human produces in one year.  Airports are exceeding or reaching capacity due to the increased demand and accessibility of business and leisure travel. In an aim to reverse the climate change caused by the sector’s emissions, the United Nations have targeted airlines globally to monitor their CO2 emissions as part of the Pairs Agreement and regularly review emissions to identify reductions, and the UK’s Sustainable Aviation Commission industry recently pledged to cut net carbon emissions to zero by 2050. 

Made even more difficult by Covid-19. The pandemic has set new hygiene and safety standards for the year ahead, and these requirements are sure to continue into the near future as increased globalisation prepares international leaders to expect other contagious disease outbreaks. Necessary cabin decontamination will use additional energy and water utilities for every flight, airport sanitisation will be made possible through the use of various chemicals, and disposable products that protect travellers and employees from cross-contamination will build up a high volume of excess waste. 

 However, many Aviation leaders and sector specialists are already stepping up to the challenge. Here are five ways that carriers can meet sustainability targets whilst maintaining business continuity and protecting passengers and crew

5 Environmentally Sustainable Aviation Innovations 

1. Biofuels 

Aircraft fuels are one of the largest culprits for Aviation pollution, and rising fuel prices have been attributed as a major factor in the collapse of multiple airlines around the world in recent years. The EU’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (Corsia) aims to stabilise CO2 emissions at 2020 levels. The measures will be voluntary until 2027, after which European counties and their airlines will be targeted to reduce or offset their emissions – and fuel innovation could provide the solution.   

Biofuels created from renewable energy sources and more environmentally-friendly materials are becoming a more popular investment across the industry. Electrofuels such as power-to-liquid are a potential source of zero or lower carbon alternatives. Sustainable Aviation fuels could reduce CO2 emissions by 80% compared with fossil fuels, without the need to radically change the fuel supply systems or engines of aircraft, presenting a mutually beneficial situation for environment, legislators, manufacturers and airlines in terms of compliance and cost. 

2. Reducing Flight Times  

The European Commission set new performance times for air journeys in 2019 with the aim of increasing efficiencies and decreasing pollution through shorter flight times. The EU Transport Commission advises, ‘The average actual distance flown by aircraft should be shortened by an additional 0.2 percentage point as compared to the target for 2019. This would improve flight efficiency, reducing fuel burn, and thus avoid a large amount of CO2 emissions per year.’ 

Shortening flying times by just one minute saves at least 100kg of CO2 per flight. Boeing are currently leading the way with Research and Development, aiming to release the next fastest plane in the world before the end of 2024, and pursuing the ambitious mission of building planes that can travel from London to New York in under two hours.  

3. Air Traffic Management Efficiencies 

The Single European Sky (SES) concept, created to reform the continent’s air traffic management systems using cross-country collaboration in an aim to increase capacity, safety, sustainability and efficiencies, has been hotly contested but now appears increasingly welcome. More flexible airspace management using combined efforts are aiming to help address the high numbers of flight delays: in June 2019 over 210,000 flights (20% of all flights) were delayed, with delays lasing 17 minutes on average.  

As global passenger traffic is predicted to double in the next 20 years, to double by 2037, air traffic management efficiencies are vital to meeting passenger demand whilst minimising the environmental impact of a greater volume of flights. That will require the innovation of air navigation service providers, better communication between national jurisdictions, the integration of unmanned systems, infrastructure upgrades and the full digitisation of air traffic management.  

IATA reports that the implementation of SES over the next 15 years could accommodate 50% more flights than the total number of air journeys operated in 2017, whilst simultaneously cutting a staggering 18 million tonnes of Europe’s CO2 every year. 

4. 3D Printing 

Manufacturers such as Airbus and Boeing have already begun using 3D Printing to create thousands of flying and non-flying parts. As some airplane parts can weigh up to a third less than traditional metal components, 3D technology could significantly reduce the weight of planes, requiring less fuel and therefore reducing pollution. 

The rapid prototyping of 3D printing also means faster build and maintenance processes, creating further efficiencies, and significantly reducing waste. The reduction in error when designing and building parts also aids any necessary redesign, further reducing the volume wasted energy or materials, and delivering cost savings which could free up funds for environmental and further efficiency investment. 

5. Green Planes 

Following the revolutionary technological advancements of the Automotive and Engineering industries, which have seen such innovation as electric and autonomous vehicles and robotic design and manufacturing using Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Aerospace & Aviation industry has been investing into the research and testing of new technologies to solve the sustainability challenge. 

After displaying the new model at the Paris Air Show in June 2019, the world’s first all-electric commuter aircraft is set to launch later in 2020. Returning from a difficult start to the year, which saw implementation delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions and the destruction of a prototype in a fire, Eviation’s Alice aims to signal the aircraft evolution of the future with affordable, sustainable air travel for all.  

The so-called ‘green plane’ will run on an efficient power system run by a combination of batter and propellers that reduce noise and fuel pollution, and utilises a streamlined supply chain that reduces waste. The smaller design empowers the aircraft with aerodynamic flight and fast speeds across 1,000km distances. 

Earlier this year, Automotive giants Rolls Royce released the first model from their ACCEL (Accelerating the Electrification of Flight) Project which aimed to build the fastest electric plane in history. Rolls Royce partnered Motorsport innovators Formula E to design the plane’s advanced 6,000-cell yet featherlight battery, which is reported to be the most powerful and energy-dense battery ever used for an aircraft. The single seater aircraft should be able to reach speeds of 300 miles per hour (beating current records of 210mph) through an all-electric powertrain generating 750 volts and a propeller powered by three motors that generates 500 horsepower. 

The 90% efficient plane will reduce fuel consumption and therefore pollution through shorter journeys, and the aircraft will generate its own data that can be analysed to further improve efficiencies and inform the next generation of green plane design. Rolls Royce are looking to incorporate electrical energy into their long-term strategy over the coming decades, and could pave the way for sustainable manufacturing and operations across the transport sectors. 

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