Aviation soars above global challenges to stay the course on sustainability

Sustainability | Feb 06, 2023 | By Satair | 5 min read

At the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos last month, a panel session on the future of travel concluded with a discussion on the importance of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which was also the topic of not one, but two, WEF articles in the run-up to the annual gathering.

SAF was discussed in Davos alongside the Russia-Ukraine war, the potential end of globalisation, the coming AI revolution, supply chain problems, a looming recession and a host of other heady topics.

That SAF shared the stage with so many serious problems served as a good metaphor for where the aviation industry stands in early 2023. The push toward sustainability has to contend with a number of grave global challenges.

At the recent MRO Europe conference in London, the Satair Knowledge Hub set to out to discover if these issues have pushed the industry’s green goals onto the back burner.

The answer was a resounding ‘no’ but there was also an acknowledgement that reaching the industry’s ambitious target of net-zero emissions by 2050 will be no easy feat.

The problem and the plan

“There are real situations in the world right now that are putting pressure on the path that we want to take as an industry towards sustainability,” Matthew Jessee, Satair’s head of business development for global distribution, said. “But I think we have to stay committed to that and we have to really challenge ourselves to bring a more sustainable product to the market.”

Aviation accounts for roughly two percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, a figure that is expected to grow as air travel increases in the coming years. The soot emissions of today’s conventional aircraft engines have also been linked to air pollution and a study from the Climate Action Network and International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation found that when factoring in the industry’s non-CO2 impacts, “aviation contributes an estimated 4.9% to the global warming problem”.

In 2021, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents 290 airlines that account for over 80 percent of total air traffic, adopted a resolution to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The plan calls for a total reduction of 21.2 gigatons of carbon via a combination of minimising the sector’s direct emissions and using methods like carbon capture and offsetting schemes to make up the balance.

Pressured from all sides

Frank Preli, VP of propulsion and materials technologies at Pratt & Whitney, said that despite the myriad of challenges right now, the industry’s “push for sustainability is as strong as it's ever been. In fact, it’s getting stronger and stronger.”

“We're seeing airlines really pulling on the sustainability agenda,” Preli said. “We're even seeing investors insisting that companies can prove to them that they're a sustainable company with sustainable products before they will invest.”

It’s not just investor pressure. The industry is being prodded from all directions. Not least from the public. In recent years, there has been a growing and increasingly vocal denunciation of flying for environmental reasons. While flygskam (flight shaming) doesn’t seem to have become the widespread movement the industry feared, it’s becoming more common to factor emissions into travel plans.

“Anybody booking a flight today would expect a little tick box giving them the option to compensate their CO2,” Joost Groenenboom, aviation principal at the consultancy ICF, said.

Airlines also face legislative pressure in the form of schemes like the EU Emissions Trading System and fuel efficiency standards from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). New ICAO regulations that set limits on jet engines’ nitrogen oxide, smoke and non-volatile particulate matter (nvPM) emissions also take effect this year.

Engines power aviation's green future

Although there is no global SAF mandate, the US and the EU have established measures to promote its use. And frankly, the industry still has a long way to go. While many of today’s engines can operate on blends of up to 50 percent SAF, not nearly enough is being produced to reach those levels. In fact, SAF currently accounts for well under 1 percent of the fuel use on commercial flights.

In order for the industry to reach its net-zero goal, SAF usage needs to expand dramatically. The IATA roadmap calls for SAF to account for a full 65 percent of the industry’s total mitigation efforts by 2050.

Preli said there’s an obvious reason the industry is betting so big on sustainable aviation fuel.

“The reason the industry is so reliant on a strategy including sustainable aviation fuel is because it impacts the entire fleet today. You have 40,000 aircraft that can immediately use it. It can immediately impact the emissions footprint of that fleet,” he said. “A lot of the other [decarbonisation] strategies require new technologies and even new aircraft and I don't think we can wait for that to happen.”

Measuring across sectors

Getting to net zero emissions is about much more than just airlines switching fuels, of course.

Every sector of aviation will need to do its part and those individual efforts need to work toward the cumulative goal. Measuring this can be quite tricky.

“The ability to meet the 2050 aspirational targets is really dependent on a credible plan to get there,” Preli said. “What is the plan and how do we implement that on the one hand, and on the other, when are we going to have good standards, metrics and measurement systems so that we know how well we're doing?”

He added that because of the “very complex” nature of the industry, it can be difficult to keep track of the environmental impact of initiatives made by airlines, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) companies and to see how those individual efforts fit together.

As for the MRO sector, Preli and others said that the ongoing digital revolution is making it easier to reuse parts and keep certain parts in use longer rather than making new ones through energy- and resource-heavy processes.

How big data and predictive maintenance are leading an aviation 'business transformation'

“It makes perfect sense to reuse the parts from an aeroplane in other aeroplanes,” Lee McConnollogue, CEO of the teardown and part-out company eCube, said. “They are always made with complex manufacturing processes and made out of quite rare materials so, therefore, anything that we can use is good for the environment.”

Preli added that by tracking the life of a part from its design to its use by an airline and its overhaul by an MRO shop, you can increase its lifespan. As a result, “many, many more parts are reused, refurbished and go back into service rather than starting from scratch from raw materials making a new part.”

Maintenance organisations are also working to reduce their overall energy consumption and levels of general waste, Groenenboom said.

“It’s something that’s being prioritised industry-wide and I don’t think it’s been affected by the supply chain or other global issues. It might be hindered, but the focus hasn’t been reduced in any way,” he said.

The Satair Takeaway

As we have written before, there is no single solution for the industry’s ambitious net-zero goals. Getting there was never going to be easy, and the types of serious global issues we’re seeing today add even more complexity. But the industry has already shown that it can tackle this issue. Over the last 30-plus years, fuel efficiency has improved by some 70 percent, while the industry’s total emissions per passenger kilometre have been reduced by more than half over the same period. It was encouraging that so many of the MRO Europe attendees insisted that sustainability is still front and centre in their companies’ agendas. The industry can’t afford for it not to be.