Europe's Leap Forward in Sustainability

 - February 1, 2023, 7:30 AM
Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is one of myriad initiatives underway throughout Europe to improve the sustainability of business aviation operations. (Photo: AIN)

Business aviation has come under increased scrutiny in Europe for its contribution to emissions. Social media has pointed to flights of British royals, France is pushing to curb private jet operations, and environmentalists have staged protests at airports.

However, these events have not taken into account the myriad initiatives underway throughout Europe to improve the sustainability of business aviation operations. Many believe that Europe has been a leader in sustainability initiatives and that it is making progress.

Sustainable Fuel ptake

Key among the initiatives is the uptake of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which has a significant potential to reduce aviation’s climate impact through its lifecycle benefits. While the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) noted that the current SAF supply remains low—less than 0.05 percent of total EU aviation fuel use—the EU is taking steps to change that.

As part of the EU’s “Fit for 55” goals (to reduce EU emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030), the European Commission proposed a regulation to boost the uptake of SAF through the “ReFuelEU Aviation” initiative.

“In order to meet the EU’s climate objectives, the proposed rules set out EU-level harmonized obligations on fuel suppliers and aircraft operators for scaling up SAF used for flights departing from all EU airports above a certain traffic threshold,” EASA said. “According to the regulatory proposal, fuel suppliers would be required to blend 2 percent of SAF by 2025, 5 percent by 2030, and at least 63 percent by 2050, and operators would be required to use the SAF-blended fuel available at EU airports.”

SAF, which can reduce lifecycle CO2 emissions by up to 80 percent, is becoming more widely available at UK business airports, affirmed the British Business and General Aviation Association (BBGA). “And where it is not available, initiatives like book-and-claim, enabling customers to access SAF carbon reductions without being physically connected to the supply site, help to broaden its reach,” BBGA said.

The association further noted that last July, “Farnborough Airport announced its commitment to be net zero across its controllable emissions by 2030 or sooner, which will result in a 91 percent reduction of those emissions.” Ahead of the Farnborough Airshow that took place July 22-26, the airport offered SAF at the same price as standard jet-A fuel. This offer began on July 1 and continued to the kick-off of the airshow.

However, as progress is being made, the British Helicopter Association (BHA) cautions that sustainable fuels are still not economically practical. “There are perhaps only a couple of refineries in Europe and none in the UK producing SAF, so there is a transportation problem in addition to a stocking problem,” BHA said.

The main constraint of scaling up the use of SAF is the price differential between fossil kerosene and SAF, observed EASA. “As a part of the discussions around the ReFuelEU regulation, a flexibility mechanism is being considered in the way aviation fuel suppliers can fulfill their sustainable aviation fuel supply obligation,” EASA said. “There are also proposals on the table to allow for additional free allocation of emissions allowances under the EU ETS for airlines to cover their compliance costs with ReFuelEU regulation.”

types of jet fuel
From left, conventional jet fuel (Jet-A), Alcohol-to-jet synthetic paraffinic kerosene (ATJ-SPK), and sustainable alternative jet fuel (SAJF). (Photo: AIN)

Emission trading schemes

Another step towards sustainability in Europe has been the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which is a cap-and-trade system that sets a limited number of emissions allowances for aircraft operators and constrains the total amount of emissions of the sector. EU ETS is a cornerstone of the European Union’s policy to combat climate change and includes intra-European Economic Area (EEA) flights since 2013, EASA said.

The EU has provided exceptions for operators of aircraft with a maximum take-off weight of less than 5,700 kg (12,566 pounds), commercial air transport operators with fewer than 243 flights in each of three consecutive four-month periods, commercial operators with annual fossil emissions lower than 10,000 tonns of carbon dioxide, or non-commercial operators with annual fossil emissions lower than 1,000 tonnes of CO2.

“The total number of emissions allowances is limited [capped] and decreases over time through a linear reduction factor, thus ensuring that the objective of an absolute reduction of the level of CO2 emissions is met at the system level,” EASA maintained.

The UK is also implementing its own ETS, BHA said. “We are in step with the EU ETS. The UK ETS carbon offsetting targets are around 5 percent more stringent. It is important that UK operators do not get out of step, or else they would be put at a disadvantage,” the association said. “It should be observed that VFR flights sit outside the scheme. In effect, most airplanes and helicopters over the weight limit and doing commercial flights are also doing IFR. However, for the air ambulance helicopter sector, this is important as they are getting heavier helicopters, but their flights are VFR.”

As to the applicability of the EU ETS to business aviation, the European Business Aviation Association (EBAA) observed that larger fleets will slowly enter the ETS system due to their increased maximum takeoff weights.

EBAA, however, pointed out that business aviation has adopted the Standards & Training for Aviation Responsibility and Sustainability (S.T.A.R.S.) program, describing it as “an initiative with the goal of developing and introducing industry-wide sustainability standards and an accompanying label.” Set in motion by young aviation professionals, S.T.A.R.S. is designed to support, train, and certify business aviation organizations to sustainability and responsibility goals. “The program, supported by EBAA and the International Business Aviation Council (IBAC), will focus on the social and environmental issues addressed in the UN sustainable development goals,” EBAA added.

Business Model

Outside of such organizational programs, BBGA observed that many of its charter operators have adopted a regular floating fleet model to fly more sustainably—where managed aircraft are available for charter from the destination at which they have just landed, versus returning to a set base. “Dedicated business aviation airports in the UK have overtaken air transport movements from London-centric airports—which share traffic with legacy and low-cost carriers—a reflection of the continuing popularity for on-demand flying, post-Covid. Our airport members are adding significant infrastructure improvements in a nod to sustainability,” said BBGA.

In March 2021, the UK Royal Air Force determined four veteran BAe 146 aircraft would be replaced by two more fuel-efficient Dassault Falcon 900LX aircraft, known in RAF Service as the Envoy IV, BBGA further highlighted. “Positioned out of RAF Northolt, these aircraft were in the public eye in early September 2022, ferrying outgoing and new prime ministers to and from Balmoral to meet the Queen and, 48 hours later, transporting Royal Family members between England and Scotland immediately following the passing of HM Elizabeth II,” the association noted.

Role of Technology

According to EBAA, looking to the future it is important not only to mitigate the environmental impact of the sector through taxation schemes but also to allow the industry to invest in sustainable technologies, a trend that is already happening.

In terms of research on novel aircraft technologies, Clean Sky 2 (2014-2024), which is part of the EU Horizon 2020 program, has a combined public and private budget of just under €4 billion (comparable to U.S. dollars), observed EASA. “It aims to develop, demonstrate, and accelerate the integration of technologies capable of reducing CO2, NOX, and noise emissions,” said EASA. “Aircraft and engine environmental certification standards (ICAO Annex 16, Volumes I, II, and III) are implemented by EASA within the EU and European Free Trade Association. The engine NOX/nvPM standards, and the aircraft noise/CO2 standards, define the design space for products to simultaneously address noise, air quality, and climate change issues.”

According to BBGA, the increased use of digitalization has greatly benefited business aviation, saving time and improving efficiency with paperless solutions. “Our UK members have been among the most creative in identifying useful solutions, drawing on their founders’ experiences as charter brokers, operators, [and] engineering heads,” BBGA maintained. The association pointed out digital efforts of companies such as Scotland’s Make TechFly’s Avionexus, which enables real-time updates and data exchange, employing bank-level cybersecurity to manage every aspect of a trip; Elms Aviation, which uses a secure cloud-based platform to manage compliance; and Air bp’s Airfield Automation Safe2go digital technology that provides an additional technological barrier to help prevent misfueling and enhances efficiency and reliability in refueling operations.

Air bp’s Safe2go helps line service technicians confirm that they are using the correct fuel.
Air bp’s Safe2go helps line service technicians confirm that they are using the correct fuel. (Photo: Air bp)

New Fuel/energy Rules

EASA has recently published rules whereby air operators can be allowed to reduce the amount of fuel carried during operations, thereby reducing the CO2 emissions of the overall flight and the environmental impact of the flight.

“Aircraft are required to carry enough fuel to ensure the safety of operations in case their flight plan needs to change for reasons that could include the delays on approach to the destination airport or even the impossibility to land due to weather considerations or other issues. Carriage of this extra fuel, as it adds weight to the aircraft, increases the fuel consumption and total emissions from the flight,” EASA said. “The amount of additional fuel required can be optimized, while continuing to ensure high safety levels, due to improved risk assessment, calculations based on better data, and better decision-making. “

The regulatory package is aligned with ICAO guidance. EASA, however, advised that the rules will require national authorities to adjust oversight to ensure safety levels are not compromised and that the exact reduction in fuels would vary by route and aircraft.

Looking forward

EASA highlighted the success of these initiatives. EU ETS alone (including the commercial sector) is estimated to have reduced net CO2 emissions by 159 million tonnes from 2013 to 2020—or by the amount of the emissions in the Netherlands in 2018—including through funding of reductions in other sectors. Further, Clean Sky 2 aims at CO2, NOX, and noise emissions by 20 percent to 30 percent compared with 2014 aircraft technology, and new aircraft designs certified in the past year have a cumulative noise margin that is 5 to 15 EPNdB below the latest ICAO Chapter 14 noise standard.

BBGA believes the business aviation sector is continuing to show itself as resilient and creative. “Despite the pandemic, investments continue to be made on sustainability. Our new government is going to put it at the top of its agenda, likely advocating a changing face of fuel/energy management in the short term,” said BBGA. “This is a marathon, not a sprint. Fortunately, we have evolved to be a dependent advisor to the UK Civil Aviation Authority and government, as well as our 180-strong membership.”