(CNN) – In recent months, glittering planes have returned to the empty blue skies above 30,000 feet, opening up travel possibilities as they skim the clouds en route to an unfiltered sun.
On board, safely behind face masks, many passengers shrugged off the old ailments of air travel in their excitement of being in the air again. Airline food has never tasted so good.
And yet, something leaves a bitter taste. The world has changed since we last explored it, and one of the main changes is the increased concern we have for the damage we cause to it through activities such as theft.
In the wake of the climate summit agreement reached by 200 countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, the industry braced for a crisis as more people ‘worried about the impact of air travel.
Many airlines are already committed to offering carbon neutral travel and exploring alternative fuels to reduce pollution. Developments in electric aircraft, while still a distant possibility for long-haul flights, have also raised hopes for green air travel.
Net zero carbon emissions by 2050
So how close are we to a truly low impact guilt-free flight?
It is certainly a priority for the industry. At its annual meeting in October, IATA, the International Air Transport Association, approved a resolution in favor of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
IATA estimates that this figure will not be as high as some emissions will be mitigated through the adoption of cleaner energy sources and better aircraft design.
“One potential scenario is that 65% of [carbon] will be mitigated through sustainable aviation fuels, ”said Willie Walsh, the former boss of British Airways who is now managing director of IATA, in a press release.
Sustainable fuels, made from materials such as wood residue deposits, tobacco or sugar cane, can already be used in many of today’s newer jet engines without any modification.
Walsh says new propulsion technology, including hydrogen, will support an additional 13% while efficiency improvements will account for an additional 3%. The rest, he said, could be addressed “through carbon capture and storage and offsets.”
Sustainable aviation fuel
Airlines appear to be on board. British Airways parent company IAG plans to power 10% of its flights with sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) by 2030 and says it is investing $ 400 million over the next 20 years in fuel development .
In the Gulf, Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways has worked with Khalifa University, Boeing and jet engine manufacturer SAFRAN to produce sustainable biofuel from salt-tolerant halophyte plants that can be grown in water. sea.
In June 2021, London Heathrow became the first major airport in the UK to successfully integrate SAF into its fuel delivery system, with a test supply of SAF to power between 5 and 10 short-haul flights.
Over its lifecycle, sustainable aviation fuel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80% compared to the use of fossil jet fuel. And that is why its deployment is essential to achieve the 2050 goals.
So what’s the downside? A key element is the price. Sustainable jet fuel costs about three times as much as its fossil counterpart. In the pre-Covid era of 2019, less than 200,000 metric tonnes of SAF were produced globally – a tiny fraction of the 300 million tonnes of jet fuel needed by commercial airlines in a typical year.
After Covid, air travel is already expected to become more expensive due to uncertain demand. Green airplane travel is likely to be even more expensive, which could slow adoption.
Lauren Uppink Calderwood of WEF discusses the Clean Skies For Tomorrow Coalition which has pledged to replace 10% of the world’s jet fuel supply with sustainable aviation fuel by 2030.
The value of compensation
Until less harmful fuels become mainstream, travelers can still try to mitigate the impact of their travel through offsets – programs that offset the carbon footprint by funding emission reduction projects such as planting trees, wind farms or capturing methane.
Several airlines operate theirs. Cathay Pacific says its Fly Greener program has offset more than 160,000 tonnes of CO2 since its launch in 2007, the equivalent of 30 million taxi trips between Hong Kong International Airport and the city center.
There is no doubt that offsets bring societal benefits and help reduce the problem, but ultimately they are a form of bookkeeping: they do not actually reduce the amount of carbon spewing out the back of jet engines. .
The Compensaid platform developed by the Lufthansa Innovation Hub tries to help passengers play a more direct role in making planes operate with less CO2. It is fast becoming the main carbon offset option for SWISS and Lufthansa.
In addition to offsetting their emissions by investing in climate protection projects, SWISS travelers can also reduce their CO2 emissions by purchasing sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).
While SAF is expected to do the heavy lifting in the green aviation revolution, alternative technologies are developing rapidly, particularly for the market for flights within 1,000 miles.
Europe’s largest aircraft manufacturer, Airbus, is betting on hydrogen to change the trajectory of aviation for short and medium-haul flights.
In a high profile turn last year, Airbus moved from a strong focus on developing small electric aircraft to a new initiative exploring the potential of hydrogen.
He revealed a trio of concepts for zero-emission, hydrogen-powered airliners, under the ZEROe banner, which could enter service by 2035.
There are still many obstacles to the widespread adoption of hydrogen. On the one hand, airports do not have the infrastructure to store and deploy it.
Los Angeles-based startup Universal Hydrogen has a solution to this. It is developing a fuel distribution network that allows hydrogen to be delivered in modular capsules directly to the aircraft by freight.
It also designs conversion kits that can be retrofitted to existing regional aircraft.
“We see the short-term decarbonization of regional aviation as a first step and a catalyst, putting the entire industry on the path to meeting the Paris Agreement emissions targets,” said to CNN Travel Paul Eremenko, Co-Founder and CEO of Universal Hydrogen.
Then there is the hybrid model.
Ampaire Inc, another Los Angeles-based player, is developing hybrid electric systems for existing 19-seat nine-class commuter jets, such as the Cessna Grand Caravan and the Twin Otter.
Tens of thousands of these planes would be suitable recipients for upgrades – in fact, the Union Bank of Switzerland estimates that the global value of hybrid electric planes could reach $ 178 billion by 2040.
Ampaire recently flew its Electric EEL technology demonstrator (a modified six-seater Cessna 337 Skymaster) on a potential air route from the Orkney Islands to the north of mainland Scotland.
The electric EEL runs on a combination of battery and a conventional combustion engine, reducing emissions and operating costs by up to 25%.
It has the potential to change the economy as well as the ecology of regional aviation.
“Hybrid-electric aircraft serve two purposes,” says Susan Ying, Ampaire’s senior vice president for global operations, Susan Ying. In addition to meeting environmental goals, “they can also make current routes more profitable while reducing fares and enhancing connectivity.”
A render shows what the Alice plane would look like in flight.
Another approach to cleaning the skies comes from Washington state-based Aviation Aircraft, which recently unveiled the production version of its zero-carbon, all-electric Alice aircraft.
The aircraft, which has a range of 440 miles, is intended for feeder routes and is also available as a cargo version – DHL Express has ordered 12 which are expected to enter service in 2024.
As energy sources continue to evolve, UK-based Faradair Aerospace is currently working on a design that will get the most efficiency from the fuel used.
Its 18-passenger BEHA aircraft, made from lightweight composite, can carry a payload of five tons, operate from short runways, and has a range of 1,150 miles.
It is also silent, driven by counter-rotating propellant fans and has a solar panel for the “always on” cabin ground supply.
Company boss and founder Neil Cloughley told CNN Travel that a potential first flight for 2024/2025 is possible, followed by certification for commercial operations by 2027.
The test of time
The plan, he says, is to use a Honeywell turbo-alternator based on the Airbus A350’s auxiliary power unit (the A350’s on-board electricity generator) as the main power source.
This provides “the emissions and noise benefits of replacing twin turboprop operations with all the operating cost savings of electric motor propulsion, powered by a single efficient generator.”
This means that it will not require significant reconfiguration to accommodate different fuel types, thus easing the path to regulatory approval when adopting improved systems.
This, says Cloughely, “will help sustain the life of the asset, ensuring the longevity of operations without threat of obsolescence in the near future.”
In an uncertain world where fuel prices have never been more erratic, keeping energy options open could indeed be a smart strategy for the aviation industry as it strives to achieve carbon neutrality.
For travelers, anything that brings true zero-carbon flight closer will likely be welcome, but as they continue to head for that blue sky, it’s clear that the promise of impact-free air travel is still far away.