AIN Blog: Aviation Makes Environmental Progress on Several Fronts

 - July 27, 2011, 4:51 AM

I recall being at first surprised, then relieved, by the oft-quoted statistic that aviation accounts for just 2 percent of global CO2 emissions. It seems like such a small amount in the grand scheme of greenhouse gases. But a recent report by the World Economic Forum cautions against complacency on the emissions front. Based on average 4.5-percent projected annual growth in air travel, and 3 percent year-over-year increases in CO2 emissions, the study authors warn that emissions will increase threefold by 2050 regardless of industry efficiency measures.

The latter prospect was raised July 19 in a keynote speech by Mary Armstrong, Boeing vice president of environment, health and safety, before the Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association in Washington. Armstrong used somewhat different numbers to make a similar point–at 5 percent annual growth, she said, the industry’s carbon footprint will increase 50 percent by 2030. “This is a big issue and one that we take seriously at Boeing and across the industry,” she advised. “If we’re going to continue to grow as an industry and not be subject to increasing restrictions, we need to grow in a responsible way.”

Armstrong then presented a series of steps Boeing and industry are taking not only to contain aircraft emissions, but also to reduce hazardous substances in the manufacturing process, recycle components and conserve energy. The industry already is making strides in using cleaner-burning biofuels, as evidenced in June by the first transatlantic flights using biofuel blends by a Honeywell Gulfstream G450 and Boeing’s 747-8, both landing at Le Bourget for the Paris Air Show. On July 1, standards organization ASTM International approved a revised fuel specification allowing up to 50-percent biofuel blends with conventional jet fuel, opening the door to wider usage.

Making news of her own, Armstrong announced the formation of the International Aerospace Environment Group, an organization of major aircraft and engine manufacturers dedicated to establishing environmental guidelines for the aerospace supply chain. Its first effort will be to develop a way to inventory the myriad chemicals used in manufacturing components, making that information available to airlines and other concerned parties. Hazardous substances will be culled from that eventual list. Boeing is eliminating paints containing chromates, known to be carcinogenic if inhaled. As of July 12, Armstrong said, the company switched its first 737 production line in Renton, Wash., to the use of non-chromated primer and topcoat.

Four Boeing sites–including Philadelphia, where CH-47 Chinooks and V-22 Ospreys are manufactured; and North Charleston, S.C., site of 787 Dreamliner final assembly–send zero solid waste to municipal landfills. With the 787 and future aircraft being composites intensive, Boeing hopes to promote an aftermarket for recycled carbon fiber materials to fabricate brackets, clips, passenger seatbacks and tooling. Boeing and carpeting manufacturer InterfaceFlor, of LaGrange, Ga., are developing carpet tiles made from recycled aircraft carpeting, which are being tested on four Southwest Airlines 737s. According to Armstrong, 70 to 75 percent of an aircraft can be recycled today; the industry’s goal is to improve to 90 to 95 percent by 2016.

Hearing of this progress, I’m reminded of a career stint covering the trucking industry and its efforts to introduce ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel and more efficient diesel engines. It’s not clear to me if trucking, even lesser loved than aviation, has convinced the general public of its environmental credentials. Maybe aviation will prove its case.

Look for a special report on business aviation and the environment in the September issue of AIN.