- Airlines and aircraft manufacturers are investing millions to create truly sustainable aircraft after years of improving emissions in aircraft is proving not enough.
- Airbus just unveiled a fleet of zero-emission aircraft powered by hydrogen that it says may be flying by 2035.
- KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Japan Airlines, and Virgin Atlantic Airways are all investing in similar alternatives to today's offerings.
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Airlines have long desired to end their dependency on fossil fuels but the lack of alternatives has kept them in the turbulent relationship that often wreaks havoc on the bottom line and draws scorn from environmentalists and climate activists.
Recent advances in aircraft and engine technology have made airliners more efficient but, aviation still accounts for between 2% and 3% of global emissions.
Airbus just put forward plans to create a new fleet of zero-emission aircraft aimed at creating a more sustainable aviation industry. Its new hydrogen-powered planes, the manufacturer claims, could begin to replace fossil fuel guzzlers in the skies as early as 15 years.
Sustainability in aviation has largely hit a roadblock as been dabbling in biofuel, including sustainable aviation fuel, but have been restricted by its limited availability in the marketplace. Only a few airports currently offer alternate fuel besides kerosene-based jet fuels that require additional infrastructure and commitments by airlines to use the fuel.
Airlines and manufacturers are realizing that only a radical shift will allow aviation to become truly sustainable and are using their wallets to make it a reality.
Here's how the aviation industry got here and why sustainability in aviation isn't as far away as we think.
Fuel costs can make or break an airline with the volatile market a constant concern for the aviation industry.
The 2000s has seen countless airlines including Aloha Airlines, SkyBus, EOS, and Germania, among others, collapse or declare bankruptcy due to rising fuel costs, especially as oil prices peaked in 2008.
Rising fuel prices lead to higher operating costs for airlines and some can't survive in that environment, especially during lulls in traffic, as was the case with the Trump Shuttle in the early 1990s.
Some airlines hedge fuel, effectively pre-determining a rate for fuel, which helps mitigate any problems if the price of fuel increases.
On the downside, the price of fuel can also go down and airlines that hedge miss out on those savings, as airlines saw in early 2020.
Aircraft efficiency in the modern era has dramatically increased, starting with the increased use of lightweight composites to build airplanes and new engines with better rates of fuel consumption.
Boeing is credited with kicking off the next-generation revolution with the 787 Dreamliner.
Half of the aircraft's structure utilized composites and new engines from Rolls-Royce and General Electric helped increase fuel efficiency by up to 25% compared to older generation aircraft, Boeing claims.
Airbus soon followed with the A350 XWB.
Just like the Dreamliner, Airbus claims that the A350 lowers operating costs by 25% thanks to the use of composites and more fuel-efficient engines.
Both aircraft are prominently featured on the list of the world's longest flights, with seven out of 10 being operated by either an Airbus A350 or Boeing 787.
A modified Airbus A350-900 XWB also flies the current longest flight in the world between Singapore and Newark.
And Qantas plans to use the Airbus A350 to fly non-stop from Sydney to London and New York.
The Australian flag carrier recently opened up the sole non-stop link between the UK and Australia using a Boeing 787.
These designs have also trickled down into narrow-body aircraft including the Airbus A220...
Boeing 737 Max...
Airbus A320neo family...
And Embraer E190-E2.
Each is cheaper to operate for airlines and require less fuel, despite flying longer distances. And the lower operating costs of these aircraft have opened up previously unprofitable routes for airlines, offering more direct flights for passengers.
Airlines were quick to abandon older and bulkier aircraft, like the Boeing 747 and Airbus A380, to take advantage of the economic benefits of the smaller aircraft.
But the aviation industry is only expected to grow, the coronavirus pandemic notwithstanding, as more travelers take to the skies every year. Serving them, while also keeping emissions down, has forced airlines and manufacturers to seek options for more sustainable flights.
Airbus' three designs all utilize hydrogen as fuel instead of kerosene-based products.
This ZEROe jet looks much like an existing Airbus A320 family aircraft with slight aerodynamic enhancements including swept-back wings. It boasts a range of around 2,000 nautical miles and capacity for up to 200 passengers.
Airbus would also create a propeller aircraft, similar to the ones currently being produced by ATR. Its range would be around 1,000 nautical miles with seating for up to 100.
The most radical design is the blended wing concept, which Airbus hinted at earlier this year with its Maveric demonstrator.
All would be powered by hydrogen, either by hydrogen composition or by using hydrogen and oxygen atoms to generate electricity.
The blended wing concept is also proving to be a new way forward as KLM Royal Dutch Airlines is also investing in a blended wing design, which it calls the Flying-V.
It's supposed to be the same size as the Airbus A350 but able to fly further while carrying the same number of passengers.
So far, the European airline – working with researchers and engineers at TU Delft – have only come up with a flying prototype.
The US military currently employs a blended wing aircraft, the B-2 Spirit, which was designed for speed, stealth, and range.
The alien-looking bomber can fly 6,000 miles in a single flight and has an exceptional safety record, except for a 2008 incident in Guam where erroneous sensor readings caused a crash.
Source: Stars and Stripes
Boom, the Colorado aerospace startup, is also courting airline investors for a new Concorde-like aircraft capable of breaking the sound barrier while using sustainable fuels.
Japan Airlines invested $10 million into the company while Virgin Atlantic Airways is also an investor.
The US Air Force also just issued a contract to Boom to study supersonic transportation, with possible uses for executive transport as the future Air Force One.
The trend isn't limited to airlines with private aircraft manufacturers seeking to jump on the trend.
The Celera 500L currently in development by Otto Aviation boasts a fuel consumption rate of up to 25 miles per gallon with a 4,500 nautical mile range, making among the most fuel-efficient aircraft currently flying.
The single-engine plane is so cheap to operate that its builders say it will make flying private comparable to the cost of flying commercial.
San Francisco has established itself a hub for alternate fuels by partnering Finnish supplier Neste, which recently announced a deal with Shell to produce more biofuel.
JetBlue Airways announced in January that its flights from the Bay Area's largest international airport will utilize Neste's sustainable aviation fuels.
Source: JetBlue Airways
Private aircraft operators like NetJets and VistaJet are also pledging to use more sustainable aviation fuels in their operations.
NetJets announced earlier this month that it will buy up to 3 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel at San Francisco International Airport.
And VistaJet also announced a commitment to make sustainable aviation fuel available globally.
A sustainable aviation industry is on the horizon as airlines are clearly ready to abandon fossil fuels. But it will require investment at a time when airlines are losing millions and aircraft manufacturers are cutting production rates.
With a major manufacturer and innovator like Airbus onboard, however, the possibilities are endless.
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