Clear skies ahead: The aviation industry takes steps toward sustainability
Cars have long been identified as one of the main causes of climate change, but air travel is increasingly attracting the attention of sustainability experts. Carbon dioxide emissions from aviation account for less than 3 percent of the worldwide total, but this statistic doesn’t tell the whole story. Modern air travel leads to copious amounts of greenhouse gas emissions as well as nearly 100 pounds of waste per flight, contributing to global warming. Experts warn that at the rate air travel is increasing, emissions from commercial aircraft could triple by 2050.
All of these issues make sustainability a top priority. However, the complex nature of aviation engineering and management presents significant challenges to effective decarbonization. To help face them, industry leaders are taking a multi-pronged approach to reduce emissions across the range of operations.
An MBA degree can provide the professional background and expertise to pursue a career in this increasingly important aspect of aviation management. Managers play a direct role in helping the aviation industry take steps toward sustainability. Here, we cover a few areas where aviation is getting greener, including:
- Cleaner fuel alternatives
- Air traffic control and flight management
- Plane construction materials and aviation design
- Cabin waste management
- Decommissioning aircrafts
Cleaner fuel alternatives
Replacing jet fuel is tricky as sustainable options must have certain properties similar to fossil-derived fuel. The industry is focusing on sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) made from renewable biomass and waste resources, which can be blended with or even replace traditional jet fuel.
Nikita Pavlenko, senior fuels researcher for the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) notes that movement for zero-emission planes is encouraging.
While, as of now, no SAFs have been approved for use without blending, experts like executives at Fulcrum BioEnergy estimate industry standards to be set in the next few years.
In the meantime, initiatives for cleaner fuel alternatives are still gaining momentum. Fulcrum BioEnergy, for example, has the ability to produce biofuel from solid municipal waste, which also helps to reduce methane gas produced by landfills.
United Airlines recently announced that alongside Air Canada, Boeing, GE Aerospace, JPMorgan Chase and Honeywell, they would be investing $100 million to fund SAF initiatives.
Air traffic control and flight management
New technologies can help airlines and air traffic controllers increase air travel efficiency and reduce the use of fuel. With the help of tools such as artificial intelligence, data analytics, automation and virtual reality, aviation experts are examining every aspect of flight planning and airspace — including variables like weather, aircraft type and traffic patterns — to discover opportunities to save energy and reduce emissions.
Initiatives currently being incorporated include:
- Identifying more efficient routes, altitudes and speeds in flight planning.
- Optimizing arrival and departures to minimize taxi delays, ramp congestion and holding patterns.
- Using single-engine taxiing and continuous descent arrival to reduce fuel burn.
- Dynamic routing to decrease landing distances.
Plane construction materials and design
Using lighter materials in aircraft reduces fuel burn and waste. For example, new carbon fiber composites are lightweight, thereby requiring less fuel to stay airborne, and can also be produced via 3D printing, which minimizes material loss during fabrication. And as Chemical & Engineering News mentions, some new airplanes are now about 55% composite materials.
Most composites aren’t conductive on their own, however, putting these planes at risk of suffering serious damage in the event of a lightning strike. Airplane manufacturers have taken to adding copper mesh to protect planes from lightening, but this workaround has the unfortunate effect of adding weight to the plane. Scientists are currently working on composites that can conduct electricity, keeping the total weight down.
Similarly, they are working on eliminating chrome from airplane materials, as the hexavalent chromium can have harmful effects. Scientists are looking at the possibility of replacing chrome with other materials that are less toxic, and like more sustainable composite materials, they too can keep the total weight down.
Design modifications can also have an impact on aviation sustainability, like saving fuel. Some promising options include:
- Transonic truss-braced wings (TTBWs), extremely long and thin wings that provide lift with less drag.
- Small core gas turbines, which increase the bypass ratio of air flowing through the engine core, making it more efficient at generating thrust.
- Fully electric plane engines.
- Hybrid engines that can power generators or charge batteries for electric motors.
Further research and technological advancements will likely uncover many other methods that can be used for sustainability efforts.
Cabin waste management
Commercial flights generate a lot of waste from things like unfinished food, wrappers, utensils, cans and bottles. One study found that a typical passenger created over three pounds of waste per flight.
Unfortunately, managing cabin waste from flights is a complex task with limitations to recycling and reusing that involves most airlines hiring multiple contractors who are responsible for both producing and handling waste. It also involves differences in local and national services and regulations regarding its handling and treatment.
In the meantime, airlines have experimented with some innovative solutions:
- Air New Zealand tested edible coffee cups, which have proved popular with its passengers.
- Iberia unveiled new trolleys with two-compartment special bins for recycling.
- A United flight offered recyclable and compostable dinnerware, resulting in just 14 cumulative pounds of passenger waste compared to the usual 65 pounds.
- A Qantas flight used biodegradable replacements for single-use plastic items and eliminated others. After waste was sorted for reuse, recycling, or composting, the resulting garbage fit into a small plastic bag — much less than the usual 75 pounds for that flight.
When an airplane gets too old to fly safely, around 90 percent of its parts — from interior textiles to the fuselage – can be recycled and reused, either in other aircraft or for purposes in other industries, including other modes of transportation. For context, over 16,000 planes have been decommissioned in the past 35 years.
Happily, the aviation industry has made headway in ensuring such reuse is environmentally safe. The International Air Transport Association, the trade association for airlines around the world, publishes a guide that covers decommissioning phases like selection of facilities, disassembly and dismantling, while the Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association offers guidance to materials recyclers, disassemblers, and parts distributors.
A bright future for experts in sustainable aviation management
As the climate crisis worsens, there is an undeniable need for air travel to become more environmentally responsible. A greener aviation industry calls for professionals like aviation directors who can translate the needs, processes and requirements of efficient, safe air travel into sustainable alternatives. These professionals work in middle- and upper-level management positions within:
- Fixed-base operators
- Government agencies
- Consulting firms
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