Sustainability: A Tide Turning in Demand

 - December 1, 2022, 10:16 AM
Demand for SAF is growing as more operators realize the benefits of sustainability.

The past year has marked a flurry of activity in advances across the sustainable front from the Eviation Alice electric commuter first flight to the successful test of 100 percent sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) on the GE Honda Aero Engines HF120 and Bombardier’s landmark multi-year book-and-claim agreement with Signature Aviation, to name a few. 

However, industry advocates agree that perhaps the most significant advance in the past year has been a shift in the outlook of the business aviation community itself on sustainability.

“We’ve created the demand,” said Tim Obitts, the former president of the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) who this year joined sustainable fuel pioneer Alder Fuels as chief legal officer. “Now we need the supply.”

Getting to that has been a long education process that began more than a decade ago with a business aviation industry pledge in 2009 to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2050, improve efficiency by 2 percent per year through 2020, and achieve carbon-neutral growth after that. The initiative was so successful that industry leaders in late 2021 came out with a new sustainability pledge: net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050.

Along with traditional means such as air traffic efficiencies, the industry leaders cited as keys to getting to net zero the use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), book-and-claim (under which operators purchase SAF at a different location for use by other operators but get credit for it), and development of new technologies such as electric, hybrid, and hydrogen-powered aircraft. 

For industry organizations, FBOs, SAF developers, distributors, and manufacturers, sustainability has been at the forefront. “Sustainability is the absolute priority for all GAMA [General Aviation Manufacturers Association] members and all manufacturers,” said Kyle Martin, v-p of European affairs for GAMA. “It's massive—the focus on and investment in research and development across all sectors, whether it is hydrogen, electric, sustainable fuels, or making traditional or conventional aircraft more efficient.”

However, even as the 2021 pledge was made, there was still a great deal of education still necessary and skepticism. Exemplifying this skepticism was a JetNet IQ survey released during the NATA Aviation Business Conference in November 2019 finding that when asked whether they would seriously consider flying with SAF in the next 24 months, just 10.4 percent of the respondents in North America said they would “strongly agree” while another 20.4 percent said they “somewhat agree.” Moreover, 25.4 percent in North America said they would “strongly disagree.” Responses from Europe were only slightly better.

However, that tide appears to be turning as numerous events have coalesced over the past year that have raised awareness and visibility of the need for advancements in sustainability.

To begin with, there has been a growing recognition that sustainability is imperative. “In spite of the pandemic and all the challenges our companies face during the pandemic with workforce supply chain, and everything else, what they have not cut back on is their investment in innovative [sustainable] technologies because they know it's the lifeblood of their future,” Martin said. “If we don't decarbonize our industry, we're not going to have a future.”

NBAA director of environmental and technical operations Stewart D’Leon added corporate flight department parent organizations are seeing a need to decarbonize as the investment community weighs in. “For the parent organizations, I've heard it over and over again, investors don't want to invest in something now if there's not an environmental sustainability tag to it. It's just because it's too much of a risk right now.”

Aviation organizations have further played a role not only through outreach and educational sessions at various events but through certification or standards programs such as the ones NATA and NBAA have established.

NBAA launched its Sustainable Flight Department Accreditation Department program this year and D’Leon said the response has been beyond what they had expected not only in interest but in the level of participation. How NBAA intended the program to play out “is exactly what we're seeing,” he said.

“I really feel like we're seeing all these various organizations slowly come into formation. They're aligning themselves with others in the industry. They're aligning themselves with their parent organizations. They're realizing what their parent organizations already had in place that they could take advantage of,” he said. “We’re seeing real work actually start.”

Organizations are looking at their plans and adding sustainable efforts into their budgets. They are not looking to just pick up SAF here and there, but looking at how much they can uplift and where they can get it.

“I'm optimistic that we're getting past the basic terminology and understanding, and we're starting to move into, okay, how do I actually help my organization get there?”

In addition, technological breakthroughs and advancements have made a sustainable future more tangible for people.

“We've known for a long time that there were different developments from the pipeline. I think what's maybe more surprising is the appeal, the interest, the demand that there is out there in the market,” Martin said. “Beyond your core leadership, this extends to people who fly these aircraft and want to buy these aircraft.”

He pointed to the Pipistrel electric Velis trainer, the first of its kind to reach the market. “It’s being used as a counterargument to some of the attacks that are being used. They're operating these all-electric aircraft in flying schools, for example in France, Switzerland, Germany, and other places to demonstrate that zero-emission aviation is possible, it's here, it's not a dream.”

Now, he said, the next hurdle is to actually meet that demand. “The challenge is not technological or market demand. The challenge is simply supply,” he said. “We have certainly many FBOs in Europe and in the U.S. that now are offering SAF, but the demand cannot be met.

I know several member companies are trying to get supplies of SAF for their testing and there's like a waiting list to get supplies.”

Obitts agreed and said that demand is making an impact. More than 100 companies have now jumped into the fray to produce SAF, he said. “So, we've done a great job showing the demand. That's a huge achievement and something that the business aviation associations have collectively worked on. And these companies are not forgetting about us. It's not all commercial aviation.”

However, SAF supply still faces numerous hurdles. The source of the supply is key among them since fats and greases have such a significant role. However, the prices of such sources have doubled in the past four years, making them expensive, and even if the industry taps into the entire supply in North America, “the most you are going to get is maybe 400-500 million gallons of [SAF] a year. That’s tough when commercial aviation and business aviation need 36 billion.”

There are other sources being researched each with their own upsides and downsides, he said.

While availability is still limited, distribution is increasing with companies such as AvFuel signing long-term agreements to expand access in the past year. Numerous FBO chains are now getting some supplies of it: Signature Flight Support, for instance, recently announced that all of its FBOs in California are going to carry it.

This is expected to continue to expand into the new year, thanks in part to blenders tax credits included in the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 that are designed to incentivize production.

Also, to expand is the blend of SAF. Most aircraft are now approved to carry a 50/50 blend of SAF and jet-A. But research and testing continue on the ability for aircraft to run on 100 percent or “neat” SAF. GE Honda Aero engines recently tested this capability in the HF120 powering the HondaJet. Several more such tests are anticipated in early 2023 across the engine manufacturers.

But industry leaders will remind that SAF is critical to the early successes of the business aviation sustainability goals, it is not a silver bullet. Work is continuing on a number of fronts, as the industry takes a holistic approach. From the Textron Aviation ZeroAvia partnership announced in September on Caravan hydrogen conversions to the CAE Piper Aircraft partnerships on an STC for electric archer supplemental type certificate.

And then there are the more “traditional” means, such as the work the associations have engaged in with the FAA on more direct approaches and descents into airports that are far more fuel efficient. All of this is coming together to usher in a busy 2023 on the sustainable front.