Covid-19 has accelerated trends already underway in the airline business before the crisis struck, particularly those toward smaller, longer-range airplanes that could aid carriers’ efforts to boost versatility and flexibility at a lower cost, according to Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury. But one trend that needed no exogenous shock to manifest itself—that of efforts toward environmental sustainability—will need to continue far beyond the point at which Covid-19 no longer influences fleet decisions or network strategies.
Speaking during the latest in a series of interview sessions held by Eurocontrol on Tuesday, Faury lamented the minimal use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) by airlines and stressed the importance of a coordinated effort toward meeting targets for carbon neutrality by 2050. All of Airbus's airplanes have gained certification to fly on a 50-percent blend of SAF to conventional jet fuel, explained Faury, but airlines collectively use less than 1 percent SAF in their operations. However, he also expressed optimism in recent developments outside the European Union including the return of the U.S. to the Paris climate accords and China’s public commitment to meeting its own goal for net-zero carbon emissions by 2060.
“What we need…is not only a good airplane, [but] a regulatory framework,” said Faury. “So we need to work with regulators to define new rules for those kinds of planes.”
Airbus, of course, has gotten attention for its goal of introducing a hydrogen-powered airplane by 2035; but Faury emphasized the need to set the conditions for a ready supply of hydrogen to meet its target.
“Obviously, we are far from being there, but we have five years to get there,” he said, referring to his timeline for developing the technology needed for efficient distribution of hydrogen to allow for a 2035 entry-into-service (EIS) of one of Airbus’s concept airplanes. “And when we see big momentum in hydrogen in many industries, we think that’s very encouraging.”
Faury further expressed high confidence in Airbus meeting its 2035 target, assuming it would need two more years to find suppliers, locate a production site, and fund the program before launch followed by seven to eight years of development before EIS.
“Now that doesn’t mean all solutions are on the table,” he noted. “Obviously, hydrogen is not a new technology, but hydrogen on planes means a lot of development, a lot of engineering where we test a lot of different solutions to select the best one.”
For Airbus, a blended-wing architecture appears particularly appealing, said Faury, because of its ability to store large volumes of hydrogen within its confines.
But apart from considerations such as deciding on what type of airplane design would most effectively use hydrogen, Airbus also recognizes the importance of SAF development because its “drop-in” nature requires far less infrastructure development at airports, stressed Faury.
“So the infrastructure would be very, very different from what it is today, and there will be the need for infrastructure investments,” he explained. “That's why it would not be something that will happen very quickly. That's why we believe it's such a big deal that we start small before going bigger at a later stage because we, we need to see this transformation of infrastructure and the airports.”
Meanwhile, Airbus also needs to consider what sort of physical changes airports might need to effect to accommodate something like a blended wing airplane. “That's something we're looking at and weighing the benefits and the downsides of the playing with a very different architecture,” said Faury, who further noted considerations such as boarding times, evacuation times, and the speed at which luggage gets loaded and unloaded.
“So these kinds of architecture come with more challenges when it comes to those kinds of questions,” said Faury. “That's why we are looking as well at conventional airframes.”