This May, a record 23 of the 58 jets arriving at Europe’s annual business aviation mega-event, were fuelled by sustainable alternative jet fuels.
In Geneva for the annual European Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition (EBACE), the jets came from major manufacturers such as Bombardier, Gulfstream, Cirrus, Embraer, Piaggio, Dassault and Textron Aviation.
European Business Aviation Association (EBAA) chairman of the board of governors Juergen Wiese declared it “a milestone in business aviation’s commitment to sustainability and reducing carbon emissions”; a feat that demonstrated the viability and the value of alternative fuels.
While the aviation industry’s sustainability initiatives are ambitious and innovative, it has faced a backlash in recent times from environmental activist movements like Flygskam, a Swedish word that translates to “flight shame”.
An anti-flying movement that originated in Sweden last year, it encourages people to shun flights so as to lower carbon emissions. Already, Sweden has seen a 3% decrease in domestic flights. IATA general manager Alexandre de Juniac rejected the polluter stigma, declaring it based on lies and half-truths. “The air transport sector is facing a reputation risk. And it’s a first,” he said.
According to the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) website, the global aviation industry produces around 2% of all human-made CO2 emissions, with aviation responsible for 12% of CO2 emissions from all transport sources. Worldwide, flights produced 895 million tonnes of CO2 in 2018 (humans produced over 42 billion tonnes of CO2.)
But unlike other industries running on fossil fuels, the aviation industry should be inspired by its role in the fight against climate change, according to one of its sustainability leaders.
Michael Gill, executive director of the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) told the Global Sustainable Aviation Forum this year: “Ten years ago, the aviation industry set one of the first long-term goals for any single sector: to reduce our net CO2 emissions in 2050 to half of what they were in 2005. For a growing industry like air transport, halving emissions is a considerable challenge, particularly when you layer global politics on top of necessary climate action.”
Gill acknowledged that fulfilling climate obligations is a hard ask, but unavoidable. It’s a challenge that aviation is tackling with improved technology, increasing efficiency, and transitioning away from fossil fuels towards sustainable energy sources.
Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is forecast to help aviation reach its goal of capping the growth of carbon emissions by 2020, and reducing the levels by half of the recorded figure in 2005, by 2050. Already, nearly 180,000 commercial flights have been made on SAF, usually from waste resources. The next few years will see SAF production commence at a number of new facilities currently under construction or financing.
Major manufacturers have planes that can fuel up on SAF at airports across Europe and the United States.
At this year’s EBACE, Eurocontrol director general, Eamonn Brennan, outlined the challenges ahead: “SAF and airframe and engine technology improvements are key to aviation minimising its carbon footprint. The problem is, the cost of production is still too high for aircraft operators. The challenge of industry and above all governments is to establish clear long-term policy frameworks and find a way of funding transition costs of what is essentially a huge technological change in order to achieve the ICAO 2050 Vision for Sustainable Aviation Fuels.”
According to ATAG data, a third of the operating costs of airlines is spent on fuel: 33%, up from 13% in 2001; likely to rise further as fuel prices go up. The challenge now is ensuring steady, reliable, sustainable and cost-effective supply of SAF.
Plane makers have stepped up to the challenge. Boeing’s ‘green diesel’ – made from oils and fat, is a significant new source of sustainable aviation biofuel that emits at least 50 percent less CO2 than fossil fuel.
Since 2011, when a Gulfstream G450 crossed the Atlantic on SAF, the manufacturer has steadily increased its use of SAF. Four years ago, Gulfstream signed an agreement with World Fuel Services to provide a consistent supply of SAF, reducing CO2 emissions by 950 tons. Earlier this year, Gulfstream made SAF available to customers at its Long Beach, California facility. Its SAF supply is chemically equivalent to conventional jet fuel, and each gallon burned achieves more than 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, Gulfstream claims.
The oil economies of the Gulf have also started the process of reducing carbon emissions.
On January 15 this year, an Etihad Airways Boeing 787 flew from Abu Dhabi to Amsterdam, powered by GE’s GEnx-1B engines utilising locally produced sustainable fuel.
Produced from plants grown in saltwater, the project was spearheaded by the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC), a non-profit established by Masdar Institute. The biofuel will not only help decarbonise the region’s aviation sector, but also support food security and the UAE’s oil sector.
Newer planes also boast improved fuel efficiency. Paras Dhamecha, managing director, Empire Aviation Group, says: “The trend in regional private aviation is towards larger aircraft, with longer range and the ability to fly non-stop to intercontinental destinations. These aircraft offer larger and brighter cabins, low noise and comfortable cabin pressure, along with the entertainment and communications technology you might expect at home or in the office, and large baggage holds. Smaller more efficient engines help burn less fuel.
“Awareness of the need to address the challenge of sustainability is growing across the industry. Empire Aviation is in constant contact with all the major business aircraft manufacturers on their technological developments and we are working with partners and staff on our own first small steps, including managing onboard consumable items.”
Oliver Hewson, commercial manager, Gama Aviation says they do their utmost to reduce environmental impact. “In this respect we seek to minimise harmful emissions by operating responsible flight procedures and operations to limit fuel burned, while maintaining safety standards. We also engage in waste recycling schemes throughout our operations. In recent years we have also reviewed all areas of consumption particularly of paper through activities such as using Electronic Flight Bags (EFB), removing all marketing brochures, and using certified sustainable paper stocks.”
Unlike Sweden, there is no cultural backlash against flying. “Owners attracted to this region tend to operate larger aircraft than in other geographic areas valuing their own space when doing air travel,” says Holger Ostheimer, managing director, DC Aviation Al-Futtaim. Jet sharing programmes where private fliers can carpool also help reduce emissions, as fractional ownership can enable many more people to share a single jet.
Aviation start-up ZeroAvia designs and produces hydrogen-fuelled electric powertrains for the aviation industry and has the largest zero emission aircraft in the world flying today using no fossil fuels. Currently, the company is targeting 500 mile short-haul trips which constitute 50% of worldwide departures. ZeroAvia claims to be able to do this at half of today’s cost of operating aircraft that run on jet fuel.
ZeroAvia has aviation-certified third-party components such as hydrogen fuel cells, motors and inverters, proprietary integration software and hardware, making up its powertrain system. It installs the powertrain in existing certified airframes, starting with the Piper M Class.
“Our mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable aviation by giving aircraft customers and airframe manufacturers a zero-emission option that serves the most common airline trips,” says Val Miftakhov, founder and CEO, Zero Avia.
Miftakhov says Zero Avia offers a drop-in solution that does not force companies to change how they do business or abandon existing contracts with their current airframe suppliers. “Instead, we are enabling them to offer a zero-emission option to their customers.” By 2022, ZeroAvia plans to offer operators with a 20-seat commercial aircraft that will fly up to 500 miles per trip.
Electric aircraft: all charged up
Last year, Dubai-based Jetex Flight Support inked a partnership with US-based start-up Wright Electric, to develop a network of charging stations to support private jets using electric propulsion. Jetex and Wright Electric are also collaborating to develop an electric aircraft designed specifically for the Middle East. With an estimated range of 540km, a passenger can fly from Jetex FBOs in Dubai to Muscat or Malaga to Casablanca on a single charge.
For Wright Electric, the goal is to make every short-haul flight a zero-emissions flight within 20 years. According to Wright, their airplanes will be 50% quieter and 10% less expensive to operate. Wright uses battery packs with advanced cell technology.
Despite the challenges, Jetex CEO Adel Mardini believes this is the future for short-haul flights. “As you know, it’s a new thing, so there will be challenges in the beginning. Same as it was with electric cars when they started being produced. It faced big resistance. But now we can see a lot of people use it and they are enjoying this product.”
More than 70 companies are developing electric alternatives, including Airbus, Boeing, Embraer and Bell. Airbus flew a full-scale version of its eVTOL in 2018 for the first time. Boeing’s prototype made its maiden flight in January. Munich-based start-up Lilium flew a five-person electric air taxi, while Zunum Aero – backed by JetBlue Technology Ventures and Boeing Horizon X – has announced plans for a 12-person electric business jet to take flight in 2022.
A number of private aviation companies offer carbon offset programmes. Every booking with UK-based charter broker Victor includes a minimum 200% offset, which is approximately 0.3% of the cost of a booking. Clive Jackson, CEO and founder of Victor comments: “As a business leader, I have the opportunity to take a bold and perhaps unpopular step in highlighting a very uncomfortable truth within our industry.
“We must act now and encourage others to follow our lead rather than passively waiting for governments and legislation. The problem is only going to get worse, so the sooner we all start to prioritise the reduction and mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, the better chance we have at preventing a 1.5 degree increase in the Earth’s average temperature.”