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What are the routes to zero-carbon aviation?

A plane lands on the runway

This year’s Air Charter Expo at London’s Biggin Hill Airport created an interesting discussion around zero-carbon flying and the industry’s commitment to going green.

From the challenges to the changes needed within the industry to excel the ambition to be carbon neutral, aviation professionals shared insightful thoughts on sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), infrastructure and focusing on the long-term investment required to bring sustainability further into the mainstream when considering the industry’s future.

Andy Smith, Loganair’s head of sustainability strategy, says that economic barriers are proving a challenge to net zero carbon emissions flying. Funding from both private companies and the UK government, he argues, is important for moving the industry forward, along with passengers being able to fly at a “viable price point”. But the support of local airports and an emphasis on sustainability is just as vital, Pipstrel’s director of sales and marketing, Steve McKenna, agrees.

Engineering challenges also present barriers towards aviation’s net zero goals – the power of aircraft engines and the need for liquid hydrogen are holding back advancements in making sustainability more mainstream, according to Dominic Weeks, head of external affairs and marketing for ZeroAvia.

Infrastructure, however, is consistently proving to be the first barrier that comes to mind for industry professionals. In other areas of aviation, equipment developers and manufacturers argue that it’s all well and good having electric engines for aircraft, but that without the relevant infrastructure, further developments are held back.

The same belief is seemingly true where discussions of electrifying ground support equipment (GSE) are concerned. A common theme amongst industry professionals is that airports themselves must also adapt to the international goal of the aviation community to be carbon neutral by 2050. Much the same as aircraft themselves, e-GSE manufacturers say that airport infrastructure must develop – by going electric – at the same pace as tractors, ground power units (GPUs) and other GSE.

Such development includes fuelling capacity and investment in airfield refuelling, retrofitting aircraft and government investment, says Dominic Weeks. Passengers and cargo could fly zero emissions “this decade”, but big airlines need to show more interest in hydrogen and, as is ZeroAvia’s mission, hydrogen-electric engines in every aircraft is required to move aviation forward into the future.

Steve McKenna added that “common misconceptions” also create barriers. The widespread use of electric aircraft could be “two, three, 10” years away for the industry, which he argues is much closer than people think. But “it’s not all about planes … the tech is here [and we] need to get the best of it”, whilst also ensuring green developments in infrastructure, air traffic control (ATC) and other areas of aviation (such as GSE development).

“Agnostic” about technology, Andy Smith believes important questions need to be focused towards liquid versus gaseous hydrogen when looking at how to be most cost-effective and then in the longer-term looking towards SAF. However, Dominic points out that “operations for SAF are five times more expensive than hydrogen by 2050”. So although many in the industry are looking to sustainable fuel as a way to advance, it seems hydrogen is proving more popular.

On the need for greater infrastructure to accommodate hydrogen-fuelled flying, Steve McKenna says the industry needs to “start thinking about what’s coming next”, with focus turning towards the airside sector (such as ground support equipment). Dominic adds that a “golden generation of aviation” is coming as the industry goes green, and that the UK government needs to be the first to adopt hydrogen markets.

Ultimately, the common belief is that as a whole industry, all areas of aviation need to adapt in order to progress at a rate that will help achieve the global industry’s goals.

Image credit: @potowizard/Adobe Stock