A race for the skies: sustainable air travel

Covid-19 has brought the aviation industry to its knees. 

In fact, some experts predict that the industry won’t return to its 2019 prosperity until 2026. This blow comes after airlines have come under sustained attack from flight-shaming activists, a trend that has gained popularity around the world in recent years.

While the UK government has provided bailouts for some airlines in the wake of Covid-19, they have missed a huge opportunity to write ‘green deals’ into multimillion-pound rescue packages. 

Still, sustainable air travel is starting to take off. Changes in fuel taxes and carbon offsetting programmes mean that airline companies and aeroplane manufacturers need to go beyond the bottom line in order to survive. 

Rivals Boeing and Airbus are already toe-to-toe in building the next generation of  eco-conscious aircraft, whilst the airlines battle it out to reduce waste, remove single-use plastics and offset their carbon emissions. 

Though we can’t predict when air travel will return to ‘normal’, when it does we could be looking at a more eco-conscious way of travelling. 

Biofuels  

Biofuels are a good place to start. Biofuel is made of sustainable plant materials and other renewable feedstock, and could replace traditional fuel.

Biofuels come with big claims for slashing emissions by 80%, but there’s a catch. One of the main suppliers (SAF) claims it costs 4x as much as traditional fuel to produce. So far, the biofuel industry just isn’t able to compete on price and scale with that of conventional fuel.

In 2018, more than 150,000 flights used aviation biofuel, but this accounted for less than 0.1% of total consumption. And there are only 5 airports that supply it (Stockholm, Los Angeles, Bergan, Brisbane and Oslo). 

Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) are committed to upgrading their entire fleet to use sustainable biofuels. Though other airlines have biofuel schemes, SAS only uses certified and sustainable aviation fuels that don’t impact on food crops, access to drinking water and biodiversity. 

In 2018 they took in an order of Airbus A320neo; a move which reduced their fuel

consumption by around 15%. SAS has also invested in a carbon-offsetting program automatically offsetting for business, Youth and EuroBonus passengers, as well as offering all passengers the same option for a small fee. 

Fuel-efficiency 

Simple aerodynamics suggest that the bigger the wingspan, the more the plane can support its own weight, i.e. use less fuel. The Airbus A350 has claimed the top spot for the most efficient plane in the skies. The manufacturer states the A350 family has “An eco-efficient, sustainable design for a quieter, cleaner aircraft reducing the environmental impact from gate to gate.”

But, Dutch airline KLM could be about to shake things up. 

They’re providing a cash stream for the development of a V-shaped aeroplane designed to seat passengers in its wings, making it more fuel-efficient. The futuristic V-shape will make the aircraft lighter and more aerodynamic, using 20% less fuel than an Airbus A350. 

The “flying V” is still in early stages of development, but we should expect to see a prototype next year – a potential contender to reform air travel forever. 

Image source: https://news.klm.com/image-bank/

Electric planes 

Introducing the Tesla of the skies. Kind of. 

Imagine planes powered by batteries, providing cleaner energy and fewer emissions.

Sounds great in theory. But where the technology is lacking is on long-haul flights. 

40% of all aviation emissions come from trips less than 1,000 miles. The good news? Electric planes can cover that distance in a single charge. 

Travelling by electric plane for sub-1000 mile trips could cut emissions by 4 to 8% and jump-start advances in technology to cover much longer distances. 

Boeing and Airbus are already developing electric models. Showcasing their eVTOL (electronic vertical takeoff and landing) at a Paris air show in 2019, Boeing presented their latest electric aeroplane, which is reminiscent of a massive drone. 

With two models in development (one for cargo and one for passengers), both aircraft have taken to the skies for test flights. That being said, Boeing’s eVOTL is actually designed to act as an air taxi or delivery service, due to Uber’s involvement in their bid to take on the skies electronically. 

Boeing has also teamed with NASA to brainstorm an environmentally-friendly aircraft. Well, a whole fleet actually. 

The SUGAR Volt is the first concept for a hybrid electric commercial airliner. Much like a hybrid car, the SUGAR Volt tags in electric energy when required and therefore decreases fuel use. If the electric energy is harvested from renewable sources, we could be looking at a plane with significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions than a conventional airliner. 

Hot on Boeing’s tail, Airbus designed the E-Fan X demonstrator to test how electric planes might run. The E-Fan X has swapped one of its 4 jet fuel engines for an electric motor.  There’s also a generator and high-power battery pack on board. Though the E-Fan X is just a demonstrator, Airbus has made progress in developing technologies to help decarbonise the skies. 

Single-use plastics, waste and carbon offsetting

What about the rest of the damaging components of air travel? 

Outside of fuel economy, many airlines are removing single-use plastics (SUPs) entirely from their operations. 

British Airways has stated that they will remove 700 tonnes of single-use plastic from flights in 2020.  Removing more than a billion plastic pieces would fill the equivalent of 30,000 suitcases. Okay, they have a head start for 2020 as the fleet is currently grounded, but you get the idea. 

To reach their ambitious targets, BA is investing in reusable or recyclable items, including bamboo stirrers, paper packaging and removing plastic retail bags. 

Moreover, in 2019 BA announced plans to create a plant that would turn everyday household and commercial waste into clean-burning sustainable jet fuel. A possible solution to the challenges faced by the aforementioned biofuels. 

The plant would produce jet fuel with net greenhouse gases that are 70% lower than the fossil fuel equivalent, or comparable to taking 40,000 cars off the road per year. 

Finally, Qantas are in the jet stream when it comes to carbon offsetting. Claiming to be the largest airline offsetter, the Aussie airline’s Future Planet scheme has offset 3 million tonnes of carbon since 2007.

The project uses a mix of reforestation, forest protection and renewable energy projects to offset their carbon emissions. 

Plus, their site has a handy carbon calculator so you can see how much you are contributing to aircraft emissions per flight, and support the cause through donations. 

Although no one is sure when it will be safe to fly again or which airlines will weather the storm, life in the post-Covid lane will throw up some surprises for aviation as the industry races to become greener. 

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