The Aviation Industry's Biggest Problem

Updated: Dec 22, 2019

Flying: the only way to travel between continents in less than a day. Since aviation became a regular mode of transport, it has grown into a large industry for both passengers and cargo. Just like boats, cars and trailers the aviation industry moves people and products through long distances, however at a pace unmatched by any of them. In a world so heavily reliant on transport due to a global market, it is impossible to simply get rid of flying all together.

Onboard the Embraer E2 over Switzerland. Photo: AeroNewsX/Dario Duppenthaler

Whilst flying has a much smaller footprint on the environment compared to driving, it is still significant. And with the earth’s environment running out of resources for us to use and stay alive it is crucial to reduce the impact that every sector has, on the planet. Transportation in general is responsible for 20% of global CO2 emissions. Of that 20% the aviation industry is responsible for roughly 12%. Compared to road vehicles' 74% it is not a lot but the fraction that comes from aviation is 2.5% of the total global emissions which is still significant. This is not the only issue however. Perhaps the larger issue is waste, primarily trash. The trash on flights can be separated into three main categories: Paper, cardboard and plastic. The last problem that exists in the aviation industry is capacity. On average a plane will be filled to 81% of its capacity. Whilst better than the average for a car for example it is still far enough from full capacity, resulting in a significant efficiency issue. The closer to maximum capacity a vehicle is, the more efficient it will be.

Now so more than ever, climate change is growing more noticeable. As a result, industries and political forces are making changes to lesser environmental impacts from human activity. The aviation industry is not one to shy away either. In a way it seems that the aviation industry is making the largest changes to reduce its environmental impact.

The Airbus A330Neo. Photo: AeroNewsX/Jamie Woodhouse-Wright

The aviation industry is growing at a fast pace. It is expected that in 2035, USD1.5 trillion of the world's GDP will come from the aviation sector; roughly double of what it was in 2018. To remain functioning and profitable, airlines must adapt to fluctuating fuel prices. In 2001, 13% of an airlines expenses for a flight was fuel. In 2018 that had increased to 33%. To compensate, airlines can charge more, use less fuel or simply not use fuel - something that airlines have adapted too with light speed. Quad-engine aircraft such as the Boeing 747, Airbus A340 and Airbus A380 all seem destined for the scrapyard within the foreseeable future. As of now it seems that post 2025, the A380 will be the only flying quad-jet along with the 747-8 freighter, but even these face uncertainty as airlines are already planning the retirement dates.

Of course airlines are not reducing their fleet size; they need replacements. Airbus and Boeing have both seemingly risen to the challenge. The market required new jets that could potentially do what the old generation of aircraft could, but give passengers a much smaller carbon footprint.

Up above on the Austrian Airlines Boeing 777. Photo: AeroNewsX/Dario Duppenthaler

Boeing was first to introduce modern aircraft into the new generation, with the Boeing 787. To make planes more efficient there were two primary changes that could be made, apart from halving the amount of engines. New engine technology has helped make a new generation of planes burn less fuel for equal thrust. Rolls Royce launched the Trent 1000 engine for the 787, which was not only more fuel efficient but also quieter than older generations of aircraft. The largest change has come to the actual aircraft design. Most notably on Airbus’s newest member, the A350; technological advancements has now allowed for planes to be built from carbon composite materials which are lighter and stronger than older metal frames with aluminium and glass fibre bodies. The new composite designs also allow for the wings to flex which contributes to its flying ability, another way to reduce fuel consumption. As a result of these changes, the 787 and A350 are 15-25% more fuel efficient than the older generation of aircraft. Timely as it was, the increase in sustainability awareness has risen in the same time frame as the older generations of aircraft are reaching the end of their lifespans. Seemingly in an instant, the largest airlines of the world are rejuvenating their fleets rather than expanding. New generation of aircraft are also seemingly being configured into a 3 class cabin with airlines removing first class, making business class the most premium experience available. This helps reduce weight per seat and increases capacity of the planes. As such, it seems as if most airlines will reduce their carbon footprint by 15-25% in the coming years.

Engine-view of the Bombardier CS100, now the Airbus A220. Photo: AeroNewsX/Célian Génier

Furthermore it seems as though plastic has become the main threat to humanity in the news recently, with single use plastic items being scheduled for removal by law in several countries, primarily in Europe. On average a person will generate 1.4 kg of waste in a single flight. Meals are the primary source of waste products. As such, many airlines have started to offer the ability for passengers to order their meals in advance. This allows airlines to reduce the amount of food it loads onto each flight. Along with this, airlines like Etihad have started removing single use plastics in favor of real cutlery, which is reusable, or utensils and packaging that is recyclable. This idea has come from low cost airlines where the base cost is the flight and meals for example are an extra. This helps reduce waste by reusing or recycling the products on board.

All in all, the aviation industry is well prepared to cope with the demands that sustainability measures are posing through adaptation. Perhaps in 30 years when it is time for another large fleet overhaul for many major airlines, the ability to fly using electricity or another renewable fuel source will have been developed. The future looks bright at 40,000 feet.

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