Sustainability Requires a Multi-faceted Approach

 - July 20, 2020, 4:55 PM
Etihad Airways and Boeing plan to work together starting in August on the seventh iteration of the ecoDemonstrator program. (Image: Etihad Airways)

When it comes to the issues surrounding sustainable aviation, there is not just one solution. This was the consensus among the panelists participating in today’s FIA Connect webinar titled "Sustainability - a future of clean skies, financial and human stability."

From the industry’s earliest commitments to the reduction of CO2 emissions, there have been three pillars on which it has hung its decarbonization ambitions. “First of all a relentless pursuit of efficiency in airplane/engine combinations,” explained Paul Stein, chief technology officer at engine maker Rolls-Royce. He said that to achieve its stated goals of reductions in carbon emissions, the industry will require an approximately 30 percent improvement in whole fleet efficiency between now and 2050. “Second [is] the necessity to scale up sustainable aviation fuels to the levels required to really make a difference, and the third [is] to start exploring novel technologies and new propulsion methods.”

Stein noted of the latter, most of those technologies are not suited, at least in the short to medium timeframe, to power longer-haul aircraft, but he expects as they mature in the e-VTOL, UAM, and short-haul sectors, such technology will eventually spill over into regional and larger aircraft. He said that his company has been working with the world’s major oil companies to increase the volume of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) production, but also pointed to the exploration of nuclear power as an energy source for producing e-fuels, which could someday power electric aircraft.

Stein added that other technologies that can offer improvements to operators include the company’s Ultrafan engine under development with Airbus, which incorporates an enormous fan. “So you have a very slow-moving fan that is very quiet as well as fuel-efficient," he said. "So customers will get other benefits, namely the noise profile of the airplane will get even lower."

As a representative of the commercial airline sector on the panel, Etihad Aviation Group has been active in the sustainability field, according to CEO Tony Douglas. “I don’t think there will be single giant leaps,” he told the audience. “It's going to be about how we use every opportunity to get better.”

The airline operates one of the world’s largest fleets of Boeing’s fuel-efficient 787 Dreamliner, and Douglas pointed to the environmental learning value of its “Greenliner” 787, which entered service earlier this year. The twinjet was delivered with a fuel load of 30 percent SAF and is being used in partnership with the airframer to explore methods of optimization. In one flight earlier this year from its base in Abu Dhabi to Dublin, using optimized route planning and more efficient airspace management such as continuous ascents and descents, the aircraft shaved 40 minutes off the flight, which equated to a savings of three tons of CO2. The two companies will continue that partnership starting in August with the delivery of Etihad’s latest 787-10, which will be used as an eco-demonstrator in a multi-week program to test innovative strategies.

Indeed, the modernization of airspace management is on the minds of many. “The roads so to speak in the skies, were almost laid down by the Romans,” said Douglas. “Many of them haven’t been reorganized since. They are seldom the optimum route between A and B.” He added when you look at the world’s busier airspace and their legacy protocols, there’s little consideration for current aircraft performance from an ascent and descent standpoint. “There’s too much fuel being burned for all the wrong reasons,” he said.

UK transport secretary Grant Shapps recently introduced a measure calling for the creation of the Jet Zero Council, to ensure that the British government is fully behind the measures required to achieve zero carbon emissions. Among them are ATC modernization, which could help cut carbon emissions without even taking into account new fuels or new systems. “With the algorithms we have these days, the aircraft is coming over the Atlantic, the computer slows it down to whatever speed, it comes in and it gets to its slot to the minute and flies in," he explained. "It literally isn’t rocket science and it's quite literally possible today.”

The panelists acknowledged that the industry remains one of the industrial sectors hit hardest by the Covid pandemic. “Obviously Covid dominates the aviation agenda at the moment,” said Douglas. “But it in no way does it overshadow the work that was going on and the commitments we previously made to sustainability." Among those efforts is work with the Abu Dhabi National Fuel Company and its work in developing SAF derived from the salcornia plant, which can grow in extraordinarily hostile environments such as deserts and salt marshes. He acknowledged that while such work is promising, “the economics aren’t at breakthrough level,” and he said he believes that the industry needs to bring in government and broader industry players to find ways to support and further develop such work.

Tom Parsons, Air bp’s low carbon commercial development manager, suggested that economic bailout programs offered currently or in the future to airlines attach green conditions, locking them into a low-carbon agenda for any subsequent growth. Because the industry is currently experiencing so much pain due to the Covid crisis, he cautioned that any such conditions be applied thoughtfully.