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REVIEW: Sustainable Future Aviation Symposium outlined key decarbonisation routes

Cirium CEO, Jeremy Bowen (pictured), said the major commercial driver behind sustainability in aviation today is 'corporate travel'

The Sustainable Future Aviation Symposium hosted by Coventry University yesterday (Wednesday 21 February) highlighted a number of key themes in addressing the challenges ahead for the global aviation industry.

In spite of the global industry’s 2050 net zero carbon emissions target, the conference made clear that industry leaders are actively keen to get ahead of deadline.

But players are self-aware that aviation’s climate commitments will be hard to meet – if they can be met at all.

Spotlighting perspectives across industry, including from commercial, cargo and business aviation, this week’s event made one thing obvious – that there is so much more (collaborative) work to be done.

The challenges – or, “opportunities”, as Professor Jon Howell, one conference speaker, was keen to observe – are far beyond the realms of electrification and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) commitments. They will play a part, however.

These are some of the key themes to take away from the cross-industry discussions on Wednesday…

Corporate travel could influence airlines’ operations and methods of estimating emissions must change

Jeremy Bowen, CEO of aviation analytics company Cirium, was the first of industry guests to speak at Coventry University’s Sustainable Future Aviation Symposium – and he acknowledged that “sustainability has come to dominate the air transport landscape”.

He highlighted that airlines’ emission reduction initiatives must go much further than to simply calculate their flights’ environmental impact by the distances they fly.

“If you don’t know where you are today in terms of your emissions, how on earth can you plot the journey to actually start affecting your emissions?” Bowen pointed out.

The most effective way to estimate emissions, the CEO explains, is by calculating the quantities of fuel burned through air travel – this involves evaluating the aircraft, flight operation, load, cabin seating and schedule.

Bowen argued this is the “most accurate way to measure carbon emissions”, adding: “[This] allows us to make accurate emissions estimates down to seat level, using an advanced fuel burn model and actual flight times.

The CEO also highlighted in his speech that airlines’ behaviour will begin to change as a result of the demands made by corporate travel.

According to Bowen, “corporations are becoming the new activists” as they demand changes to airlines’ operations because of the carbon penalties they face through air travel.

“Corporate travel was probably somewhere in the region of US$250bn pre-pandemic with airlines … [corporations] give them massive amounts of money and airlines give corporations discounts in return.

“If $250bn of corporate activism turns round to the airlines and demands decarbonisation because they’re having to report on and pay for it, it’s going to happen. And that’s what we’ll start to see.”

Embraer: A ‘sustainable company, product and future’

Daniele Sansone, regional director for airline marketing at Embraer

Daniele Sansone, Embraer’s regional director for airline marketing, set out in his speech the manufacturer’s climate commitments as a “sustainable company, product and future”.

According to Sansone: “Sustainability is in our core. Since 2002, Embraer was the first OEM to achieve ISO14001 certification.

“Since 2008 [it has been a part of] the UN Global Compact”, which sets annual sustainable development goals.

Embraer, Sansone said, has committed to a number of Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions targets in order to ensure it maintains a sustainable company.

This includes regular SAF use from 2021 and the goal of achieving 25 per cent SAF in operations by 2040, in addition to aiming to have 100 per cent of its energy come from renewable sources at its Brazil facility – achieving this worldwide by 2030.

The manufacturer is also putting in place a strategy to ensure net zero carbon emissions by 2040, improved efficiency and that aircraft will be 100 per cent compatible with SAF and green technology trends.

Additionally, this involves carbon offsetting projects to comply with the global industry’s 2050 target.

Looking to the future, Sansone stated in his presentation that Embraer has also put in place further routes to decarbonisation through fuels and technology.

Alongside sustainable aviation fuel, the regional director outlined that electric-hydro and hydrogen fuel cell technology will play a significant role in the manufacturer’s decarbonisation programme.

Embraer hopes this will be achieved through the development of its Energia aircraft family for commercial aviation, through its hybrid, electric, hydrogen fuel cell and gas turbine plane models.

eVTOL aircraft could advance business aviation’s sustainability goals

Will Fanshawe, managing director of Flexjet

Business aviation is often the first sector to be criticised when it comes to sustainability in aviation.

But Flexjet’s managing director, Will Fanshawe, says the industry’s direction is clear when looking to the projects of the future.

In his conference speech, Fanshawe outlined that the development of eVTOL aircraft will lead the charge in business aviation where concerns over sustainability arise.

He said the construction of vertiports, alongside the development of air traffic management and best safety practices, will ensure a more rapid advancement of this futuristic mode of travel.

But how far off is the widespread use of eVTOL aircraft, and what barriers need to be overcome?

According to Fanshawe: “[The eVTOL sector] needs to get through the certification valley of death and move towards the slope of enlightenment.”

eVTOLs today, he claimed, are at their “peak of inflated expectation” from industry leaders and investors.

For now, though, the managing director suggested that carbon offsetting and SAF uptake targets will prove to be two vital routes to a sustainable business aviation sector.

SAF, however, is in high demand and there isn’t much of it. At Farnborough Airport, Flexjet’s UK base, new supplies of sustainable aviation fuel are depleted in just three days.

This “global lack of SAF” presents a huge challenge ahead – particularly when it is commercial airlines who say they need more of it, and who also produce the biggest volumes of carbon emissions.

In spite of this, Flexjet has a 12 per cent SAF target to meet by 2030. Is this achievable, though? Fanshawe believes so.

Virgin Atlantic’s sustainability strategy 

Virgin Atlantic’s Flight100 milestone in November last year was a showcase for what the future of air travel can look like, according to the airline.

Celebrating a historic first as the first commercial carrier to complete a transatlantic flight powered entirely by SAF, Virgin certainly sees itself at the forefront of sustainable aviation.

But what exactly is its decarbonisation strategy? Jan Novacek, network optimisation manager at Virgin, laid out the airline’s net zero flight path yesterday.

According to Novacek, Virgin’s sustainability strategy entails fleet renewal and fuel efficiency, SAF usage, offsets and removals and network planning.

In his speech, the network manager claimed the average Virgin Atlantic fleet age was 6.9 years in 2022 – compared to 13 years, the average fleet age of its competitors.

Meanwhile, the percentage of next generation aircraft in Virgin’s fleet is currently 68 per cent, compared 10 per cent for its competitors.

Novacek stated this as evidence that Virgin is ahead in the sustainability game.

Indeed, he stated Flight100 was Virgin’s recognition of the important role of SAF, and demonstrated the airline’s ambition to have a “fast-track strategy” for sustainable operations.