Industry makes progress toward ‘greener’ aviation

 - June 4, 2009, 8:04 AM

Aviation will become greener in small steps rather than the giant leaps hoped
for in the recent past, but the aviation community is committed to reducing its contribution to climate change. That was the message at the fourth Aviation and Environment Summit, held in Geneva this spring. At the event, representatives from airframe and engine manufacturers, airlines, airports and governments assessed the global efforts toward greener aviation and progress achieved since last year’s summit.

Attending industry representatives affirmed that programs to reduce fuel burn, switch to biofuel and improve procedures in flight and on the ground have begun to be implemented, with the additional benefit of saving money.

New engines remain the most efficient step to greener aviation in the short term, but implementation will be slow, as aircraft have a service life of 30 years or more. Robert Nuttall, Rolls-Royce vice president for strategic marketing, reminded participants that aircraft engine efficiency has increased by an average of 1 percent per year over the last half century and predicted that new aircraft engines, such as his company’s planned open-rotor turbines, would reduce fuel consumption (and CO2 output) by 30 percent within 20 years. New airframes, and improvements to existing ones, will also reduce the fuel consumption of new aircraft.

Streamlined Procedures
Improved flight procedures are another successful means of raising efficiency and reducing CO2 output. Implementation of continuous descent approaches (CDA) and performance-based navigation (PBN), as well as measures at the airport level to reduce engine idling time on the ground, has started at the busiest airports in the U.S. and Europe. At the summit, ICAO launched an appeal for the rapid implementation of PBN. According to Eurocontrol, CDA procedures have already been implemented at 20 large airports in Europe.

Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways, explained various measures airports have adopted to reduce their environmental impact. He mentioned such examples as streamlining docking procedures to reduce aircraft waiting time with engines running. The executive noted that such measures save hundreds of dollars of fuel–and CO2 output–on each flight.

Last year’s summit set the goal of reducing CO2 output by 25 percent by 2020, and biofuels are essential to reaching that target. The much touted biofuel revolution is progressing at prototype level, but large-scale production is still far away. It even seems doubtful whether biofuel will replace fossil fuels to any substantial extent in the near future. In Geneva, participants set themselves the target of defining criteria for a sustainable biofuel supply by the end of this year. They will include a pledge not to compete with food production. Some promoters of biofuel call for higher subsidies, but government representatives point out that aviation is not alone in the biofuel market. Tax exemption for biofuel used for ground transportation will rapidly become too expensive if such fuels conquer a sizable market share, and this will slow its introduction.

For Richard Altman, executive director of the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative, biofuel also has the important function of increasing the offerings on the fuel market, thereby reducing upward price pressure.

The paramount problem with biofuels remains large-scale production. Unsolved questions in that realm include certification of fuel for aircraft use, acquisition of sufficient areas of land suitable for growing energy crop (such as jatropha) but not usable for food production, investment in biofuel plants, and guarantees for investors that biofuel will be used, even if  it’s pricier than fossil fuel. Most summit participants agreed that the regulatory framework for biofuel and CO2 reduction needs to be coordinated at an international level. ICAO’s John Begin said his organization is ready to assume that role but needs the support of all governments.

Emissions Trading
Andrew Herdman, director general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, pointed out that biofuel, if mixed with fossil fuel, will allow airlines to save part of their CO2 taxes in markets where such taxes are levied, which might motivate airlines to buy biofuel, even at prices higher than those for fossil fuel. Fuel blending necessitates the development of certified biofuels with properties similar to those of jet-A.

Christoph Franz, CEO of the airline Swiss, slammed the concept of CO2 taxes for impeding the implementation of new technology. He pointed out that the Lufthansa Group is investing heavily in new, fuel-efficient aircraft, which is possible only because the airline is profitable. He maintains that operators will procure fewer new-generation airplanes if they find their profits subject to more taxes. While government representatives countered that CO2 taxes are needed to finance programs for biofuel implementation, summit participants saw CO2 as a pretext for raising new taxes.

The Geneva Aviation and Environment Summit was jointly organized by the Airports Council International, Air Transport Action Group, Civil Air Navigation Services Organization, International Air Transport Association and International Coordinating Council of Aerospace Industries Associations. Sponsors included Boeing, Airbus, Bombardier, Rolls-Royce, Pratt & Whitney, CFM International and Sita. Business aviation did not participate directly but was involved through international organizations and sponsors.