Many industries are pursuing a new, greener focus at the moment. As a significant user of fossil fuels, the aviation industry is a key player in this. Over the past decades, we have seen a continual effort to fly more efficiently, reducing both damage to the environment and operating costs.
Moving forward, this is something that governments, airlines, aircraft manufacturers – and passengers – are going to be increasingly interested in. The aviation industry has set a target of reducing overall carbon emissions by 50% by 2050 (based on 2005 levels). Some areas (including the UK and Europe) have committed to go further.
More efficient aircraft
The past two decades have seen considerable improvements in aircraft and engine efficiency. In the early days of aviation, speed, size, and range were the priorities. As engine technology has improved and public focus has shifted, efficiency has become a key focus area for new aircraft.
Commercial aircraft show a clear trend here. Both the main narrowbody series, the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737, have evolved through several generations since their launch – each focussing on efficiency improvements. Widebody aircraft have seen even more changes. There has been a move away from four-engine aircraft to much more efficient twins and new composite construction to lower aircraft weight.
Private and business jets have seen similar trends, although there is more variation between types. Again this has been led by engine improvements. Taking just one example, the Dassault Falcon series, the Falcon 900B had an average fuel burn of 347 gallons per hour. The latest Falcon 900LX reduces this to 260 gallons per hour.
Use of sustainable fuels
Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) is another trend that is well underway. SAF is an alternative hydrocarbon fuel that comes from renewable sources, including cooking oil, plant materials, or household waste. Such fuel is mixed with standard kerosene-based jet fuel to provide a greener alternative.
Use is limited but growing, with major suppliers onboard. Cost is currently a limiting factor – SAF costs around 3 to 5 times as much as traditional jet fuel – but this should lower as use increases.
Passenger limits or taxation
This is a controversial topic, but one that many governments are looking at. We have already seen some airlines, and private jet operators, introduce carbon offsetting charges for passengers. This involves calculating emissions per flight, and then purchasing credits from projects that aim to prevent or reduce equivalent emissions.
Taking this further, governments could step in to enforce restrictions. The possibility of additional taxation, often dubbed frequent flier taxes, is one option under consideration. Limits could also be placed on certain types of flying. The French government made an interesting move in providing financial support to Air France during the pandemic but was contingent on dropping some domestic routes where high-speed trains were an alternative.
Moving to new power sources
Looking further ahead, new technology could be the biggest change we see in the effort to help the environment. Switching to electric or hydrogen power sources for aviation is much discussed, and both are underway to a certain extent.
The main challenge with electric power is battery size and weight. This will limit its use for some time in larger aircraft, but smaller electric aircraft are already in use. The 9-seat Cessna eCaravan can currently fly for short distances, and work is underway to develop larger aircraft.
Hydrogen is a more promising option for larger aircraft or longer ranges. It can either be used directly as an engine fuel or used as part of a fuel cell to produce electricity for engine power. Engine technology already exists, but development for modern aircraft is still in the early stages. Fuelling infrastructure also presents a major limitation.
Airbus is further ahead in large-scale development. It has launched a project to have an aircraft, most likely a mid-size regional jet, operational by 2035.
There is no doubt that aviation is moving towards a greener future. Tough competition between manufacturers and airlines has been pushing efficiency improvements for decades. And industry wide commitment to carbon emission reductions should lead to many more changes. Some of this will require significant changes to infrastructure and operations. Progress will take time and backing of airlines and governments, but with this in place aviation could be a leading example of change.
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