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April 2014
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Plane Talking

Silent Skies

Cutting carbon emissions is one side of the environmental focus for airlines and all those who contribute to the manufacturing of an aircraft, but there is another environmental factor less known but equally important – noise reduction.

From the technology side of noise reduction, manufacturers have developed engines and improved aerodynamics which have managed to reduce noise by 75% since the first commercial jet aircraft took to the skies in the 1950’s, and the trend continues with each aircraft developed and built. Self imposed targets such as those of Rolls-Royce – aiming to reduce perceived aircraft noise by 50% – illustrate an industry dedicated to a cause, an incredibly important cause which airlines and manufacturers have been helped extensively in by air traffic researchers.

Two recent developments by airberlin and Brussels International Airport have helped to proliferate silent skies; in the ‘Required Navigation Performance with Authorisation Required’ (RNP-AR) procedure of airberlin, and Continuous Descent Operations employed at Brussels Airport.

airberlin has been developing its noise cutting technology with its Boeing fleet at Innsbruck Airport, Austria, and are looking to exploit it across Germany. The RNP-AR project is part of Complex Heterogeneous Air Traffic (HETEREX), a joint research project aiming to create conditions for curved approaches, takeoff and landings. Curving the flight path of an aircraft is a truly great capacity to have for two reasons: firstly, the flight path is made more efficient thereby using less fuel, and secondly, heavily populated areas can be avoided, reducing emissions and noise in public residencies.

Similar practices have been the talk of the skies in and around Brussels International Airport, as Belgocontrol, Brussels Airlines, and the airport have jointly developed an environmentally friendly landing technique using less fuel and creating less noise. Belgium’s air space resembles a beehive of weaving activity due to its proximity to major airports such as Schiphol, Amsterdam, and Charles de Gaulle, Paris, as well as frequent traffic coming from a handful of German airports. The density of air traffic in the region has meant that testing has involved 9% of aircraft since 2010, equating to 3,000 flights. In order to achieve reductions in emissions and noise, the ‘Continuous Descent Operation’ (CDO) directs approaching aircraft to descend according to a continuous vertical profile as supposed to the stair-step profile traditionally employed. Continuous descent occurs over a 70km – 15 km distance from the airport, the same area over which reductions in noise were experienced. The University of Leuven found reductions of 2 dB(A) for medium haul aircraft and 3 dB(A) for long haul aircraft beyond 15km from the airport. Furthermore, the technique reduced fuel burn on average by 50kg for medium aircraft and 100kg for long haul aircraft.

Reducing the environmental impact of aircraft reaches further than just carbon emissions. Efforts to silence aircraft, according to these sterling examples, come hand in hand with reducing carbon emissions. Smoothing out flight paths looks to be a win for efficiency and silencing the skies.


A clearer picture of the sky

High up in the clouds, out of sight for the majority of those on the ground, there is a complex world of air traffic which few people, other than pilots, scientists and air traffic controllers, understand. Fortunately for the masses, SESAR, the body responsible for the Single European Sky and general air traffic management research and implementation in Europe, has produced a comprehensive explanatory web page to make it easier to understand what SESAR has been doing, and what this means for flight efficiency leading to reduced carbon emissions.

Air Traffic Management modernisation is very much at the top of the aviation industry’s list of things to do, purely because it can reduce carbon emissions so significantly, and when the best practices are fully implemented, easily. Industry leaders such as Boeing, CANSO, and Airbus, have all recently declared greater focus on improving Air Traffic Management.

In the form of a call to industry at the 6th Aviation and Environment Summit, Boeing and CANSO, the Civil Aviation Navigation Services Organisation, requested greater industry collaboration to reach the industry target of 95 to 98 percent efficiency in air traffic management by 2050. In addition to this, Airbus declared investment of 2 billion EUR into research and development, some of which is earmarked for the Single European Sky, which Airbus believes can cut emissions by 10%.

So while it’s not possible to see exactly what is going on up in the clouds, hopefully this will shed some light on the tremendous work the aviation industry has been doing to improve efficiency and cut carbon emissions.


1,500 miles and not a drop of fuel

How could you travel 1,500 miles away without using fossil fuel? It would be an incredibly long trip on foot, or by bicycle, and that’s without thinking about crossing water. The answer to this question is in fact, by airplane.

Betrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg, the Swiss pilots and pioneers of the Solar Impulse are up to their old tricks of smashing world records with their solar powered marvel of engineering. Having already flown the Solar Impulse for over 26 hours through night and day, breaking the record for a manned non-stop flight, the Solar Impulse team are aiming to fly from Switzerland to Morocco over two days of carbon free travel.

Propelled by a grand total of 8 horse power provided by 4 electric propellers, the solar impulse gathers its energy from the sun and stores it in lithium polymer batteries, much lighter than conventional batteries which would anchor the aircraft to the ground. One of the most distinguishing characteristics of the aircraft is its wingspan – the equivalent of an Airbus A340 – covered in state-of-the-art solar panels absorbing energy from the sun’s rays and stashing it away for the dark of night.

Considering the length of time it is going to take the Solar Impulse to travel the 1,500 miles, the pilot manning the single-seater aircraft would be superhuman to fly for the whole two day period it is expected to take, so there is going to be a brief stop of in Spain where the pilots will change over before the last stint across the Mediterranean is attempted before touching down in Morocco.

The Solar Impulse team are set to break the record for the longest non-fossil fuel journey in aviation history when the flight takes off in May or June this year, a big step towards the ultimate goal of a round the world flight in 2014. Pushing the boundaries of aviation technology in challenges such as these provides a platform to build on for future emission free commercial aircraft. Previous and future challenges show, renewable energy and aviation have a sunny future ahead.

For more information on low carbon and renewable energy propelled aircraft, take a look at the previous blog.


Science-fiction takes a step closer to reality

In light of the announcements in aircraft design, biofuel production, and air traffic management implementation made recently, with three major developments at the 6th Aviation and Environment Summit alone, advances in futuristic ideas for aviation are appearing in abundance. There seems to be an exponential curve characterising technology, and the following are spectacular examples.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the prestigious and established centre for science research and innovation, is pioneering a bi-plane (yes! A bi-plane) that could travel at supersonic speed using half the amount of fuel used by former supersonic aircraft such as Concorde, due to enormously reduced drag. Qiqi Wang, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT has been researching the use of two wings, because two wings are better than one when cancelling out the drag created when travelling at supersonic speeds. Motivation to research the concept has been credited to Busemann’s 1950 bi-plane designed for supersonic speeds, however much like Busemann’s aircraft, the supersonic bi-plane is not yet off the ground. Qiqi Wang still has a couple of issues to iron out before a full scale model is built, however it is fast approaching on the horizon. His research will soon be published in the Journal of Aircraft.


From the supersonic and intercontinental to the local and low speed, the European Commission as part of its 7th framework for research and development funding, has been financing the ‘PPlane’ project. A purely investigative and conceptual plan to explore the possibility of creating unmanned public air transport a possibility, PPlane would be a system to transport anywhere between one to six passengers from one PPort to another. The aircraft, as you can see, are like something out of a sci-fi film and are intended to be powered electrically, however a breakthrough in technology has been cited as the key to unlock the door to PPlanes whose existence is targeted for anytime between 2030 and 2050. The project is groundbreaking on a number of levels, not least because the system would be fully automated with a team of ground based pilots ready to jump into command at any moment of despair. The point is that road transport is becoming increasingly congested, so why not use the sky with new ways of managing air traffic and making the most of the space available. Using electric aircraft is expected to cut emissions and noise, while the use of pilotless and automated planes cuts the cost.

Even though these projects are some distance from completion, the ideas make sound sense, especially because of the benefits they could bring to the environment in reduced emissions, as well as facilitating faster travel which, as seen in the “Aviation: Benefits Beyond Borders” report, corresponds to greater and wider global growth, socially and economically. Let’s hope the exponential curve of technology keeps going in the same direction.


The 6th Aviation and Environment Summit: A Recap

Over the past two days, the key leaders across the aviation industry have descended upon Geneva for the 6th Aviation and Environment Summit. The event featured lively debates on topics ranging from sustainability, biofuels and global frameworks to industry announcements.  And yes, there was plenty of discussion around the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS). In fact, this topic was a highlight of the keynote of the Summit in which Marthinus van Schalkwyk stated that ‘Slowing down aviation and tourism growth simply to reduce carbon emissions will be in no-one’s interest.’

Another key talking point throughout the Summit was the launch of a new report called Aviation Benefits Beyond Borders. Developed by Oxford Economics for ATAG, the report outlines key facts and figures, case studies and insights around the economic, social and environmental impacts of the world of transport.

On Day 1, sessions covered topics ranging from the role of aviation in sustainable development, capacity through infrastructure and air traffic management, biofuels and discussion of a global framework in which everyone agreed upon the need for ICAO to take the lead.

The second day of the Summit offered a view from the top, with sessions and news featuring CEOs from Airbus, Boeing, GE Aviation, Pratt & Whitney, CFM International and Rolls Royce. Industry associations also were in force, with involvement by leaders from the Airports Council International (ACI), Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (CANSO), International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA).

In addition to driving debate in the morning sessions, these leaders took part in several significant announcements which will drive the industry’s commitment moving forward.  These include:

If you’d like to read more about the Summit, check out the Plane Talking Blog and Newswire.


Aviation, the Environment, and Commitment – The Sustainable Aviation Declaration

And so the 6th Aviation and Environment Summit ends on a high, culminating with the industry signing a commitment to sustainable development, a reflection of the true spirit of the Summit.

Introducing the declaration, IATA Director General Tony Tyler summarised his thoughts on the future of aviation into three key points. Firstly, he voiced the necessity for the industry to unite as one to form coherent and resolute positions. Through doing this, he believes aviation can tackle bigger challenges faster while meeting specific needs of all stakeholders. Secondly, he voiced his fervent support for the current research and development being undertaken in infrastructure, biofuels, aircraft design and engines, praising the hard work already undertaken and exhibiting enthusiasm for what the future holds for efficient aviation. Finally, Tony Tyler highlighted the importance aviation plays in economic development globally, a key theme at this Summit with the launch of ‘Aviation: Benefits Beyond Borders’, revealing the full socio-economic impact of aviation.

These three points are imperative for aviation if it is to deliver sustainable growth and economic development. The declaration, signed by ACI, AIA, ATR, Embraer, Pratt and Whitney, CANSO, Airbus, Bombardier, GE Aviation, Rolls-Royce, IATA, Boeing, CFM, Honeywell and ATAG, seeks to continue the delivery of economic and social growth, whilst capping net aircraft carbon emissions from 2020 and working to achieve a 50% reduction in net carbon emissions by 2050 compared to 2005 levels.

The 6th Aviation and Environment Summit may have come to an end, but the willingness to collaborate for the sake of the environment and commitment to these goals certainly has not.


6th Aviation and Environment Summit Session 6: a View From the Top – Securing Aviation’s Role in Global Sustainable Development

The sixth and final session of the 6th Aviation and Environment Summit on ‘Securing Aviation’s Role in Global Sustainable Development’ included a panel of all stars from the aviation world who discussed the rapport between government and industry with moderator Max Foster from CNN International.

The star studded panel included Jim Albaugh, President and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, Jean-Paul Ebanga, President and CEO of CFM International, Dr. Thomas Enders, President and CEO of Airbus, Eric Schulz, President – Civil Large Engine Programmes at Rolls-Royce, and Colin Matthews, CEO of BAA Airports.

The themes of debate worked around the copious areas of aviation’s role in sustainable development and the facilitation of socio-economic benefits. Research and development was of course discussed objectively, extensively, and with care as the panel shared a common belief in greater investment into air traffic management where low hanging fruits can be picked and transformed into optimized flight efficiency.

Some of the general sentiments on advanced air traffic management were somewhat radical, Tom Enders in particular referring to government progress on implementation as moving at “a snail’s pace”. The AirFrance Airbus ‘Perfect Flight’ was the perfect example for Enders to illustrate the standard of efficiency available for modern flights, reflected in 50% improvements in efficiency.

If the industry is improve its efficiency, simple things which are currently available need to be employed. However, the discussion moved onto future aircraft capabilities. Jean-Paul Ebanga advocated the hard work of engine manufacturers throughout history to tirelessly improve on efficiency of engines, something he felt was could be acknowledged more by those outside the industry. Max Foster, having questioned the panel on the priority for design of future aircraft, whether it is efficiency or speed, found a unanimous panel in favour of efficiency.

Following on from this, the panel were quizzed on their perspectives of meeting the 2020 targets of net carbon neutral growth. Jim Albaugh was particularly positive on this matter, notably because of the technological progress that has been made in modern aviation, feeling comfortable that replacement of old aircraft by the new and modern, in tandem with ultra-efficient air traffic management, would enable the industry to reach its targets.

Politically, it is clear there are disagreements between governments and industry. Colin Matthews, CEO of BAA, was particularly firm in his stance that limiting hub airport size in London limits trade and prosperity ultimately costing the economy more than it can afford. He was also adamant that enlargement of Heathrow would not create more emissions, only ease capacity.

Aviation’s inclusion in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme revealed fortified attitudes reflecting a desire for ICAO to spearhead market based measures. The consensus was that taxes burden the industry, capital could be better spent on further research and development for greater sustainable practices and efficient flights. Tom Enders and Jim Albaugh united in terming the scheme ‘ill-advised’, and both requested a delay in implementation and a passing on to ICAO. One opinion reflected a belief that government targets aviation unfairly, without acknowledging the economic benefits the industry facilitates.

Discussions such as these between industry leaders are a huge benefit to forming coherent opinions from within aviation. The practices sought after are sure to bring sustainability closer, it appears to just be a matter of getting industry and government reading from the same hymn book.


6th Aviation and Environement Summit Session 5: View From the Top – an Efficient and Sustainable Aviation Industry

The Summit’s fifth session had an interesting constellation of speakers  – Steve Csonka of GE Aviation and Pratt & Whitney Canada President John Saabas, two fiercely competing engine manufacturers and similarly Filippo Bagnato, ATR CEO and Embraer Preseident, Commercial Aviation, Paolo Cesar de Souza e Silva – two airframe manufacturers. Focus was the efficiency improvements being worked on in the aviation industry and how progress can be accelerated to reduce emissions and whilst the represented companies are competing on a daily basis, it quickly became apparent that sustainability brings them together.

Both the airframe and engine manufacturers on the panel have invested significant amounts to make airframes and engines more environmentally friendly and they come a long way. However, with even better technology, engines could become 20% more efficient and through the use of composite materials, airframes could become even lighter.

In the future however, regulatory agencies overseeing areas such as airport noise and aircraft emissions are likely to be implementing more stringent limits. On that note John Saabas noted that because of the long cycles in business and product and technology, a stable regulatory framework is needed. An issue such as the EU ETS, seen by many as an impediment to a global solution, is not helping as a scaled up conflict may have a significant impact on operating costs for airlines inevitably leading to  increased risk in the aviation market.

That being said, governments do have an important role to play agreed the panelists, for example on investment facilitation, fuel standardization research into sustainable biofuel development and improving infrastructure. All panelists were particularly optimistic about biofuels having the potential to be a game changer for all stakeholders in the industry.


6th Aviation and Environment Summit Session 4: Securing a Global Framework: Economic Measures

The fourth panel on a very interesting day presented a challenge for scene-setter and moderator Kevin Dobby: ensuring that a discussion on what needs to be done to secure a global framework is not overshadowed by ‘the elephant in the room’, as he put it (the EU ETS), and the international conflict it has spurred. As we heard views from European airlines and Emirates, the US and the UNFCCC, and finally the World Economic Forum, we can preliminarily conclude that Kevin Dobby succeeded. Inevitably the EU ETS was brought up on occasion, but there were concrete ideas voiced on how to move forward beyond the ETS – although it appeared from time to time that these were prompted by debate on the ETS.

The common ground that panelists found was that ICAO is best placed to drive discussions on market based measures (MBM’s) forward. A good start…

Dominic Waughray of the World Economic Forum encouraged both industry stakeholders and regulators to be entrepreneurial in their approach to MBM’s, while Andrew Parker of Emirates noted that leadership was required as well as a will to discuss growth and how it should be taken into account when discussing a global framework. The European Commission highlighted that aviation is a fast growing sector and that the ETS is successful in the sense that it has helped spur discussions within ICAO on MBM’s. Meanwhile, Katia Simeonova of the UNFCCC argued that voluntary action by industry could provide governments with best practice cases upon which policy could be framed. The AEA’s Athar Khan on the other hand pointed out that a continuous lack of progress within ICAO could further spur the development of taxes, charges, levies and regional solutions – a patchwork of measures which ultimately could mean uncertainty and increased costs for airlines.

Valid arguments in the context of finding a solution and assessing risks coupled with a lack of progress. However, time frames are key in the overall context because do they align? Some panelists pointed to tourism minister Martinus van Schalkwyk’s proposal this morning on suspending the ETS for two years, while Mary Veronica Tovsak Pleterski of the European Commission talked about pushing for an ICAO solution before the end of the year and flexibility clauses in the ETS legislation, but obviously only to be applied when a global solution is on the table.

Having listened to the debate it is clear that unblocking the process and speeding up developments on a global solution is an enormous task for all stakeholders involved. There may not be a perfect solution but options, new ideas and leadership are certainly ingredients which may eventually lead to a solution.


6th Aviation and Environment Summit Session 3: Biofuel – Tackling the Key Scale-Up Challenges

Having just resumed after lunch, the term food for thought become apparent as a the panel on biofuels, guided and moderated by Andréa Debbané, Vice President for Environment Affairs, Airbus, and Bill Glover, Vice President Environment and Aviation Policy, Boeing, began to look for solutions to the hurdles facing biofuels.

Techniques for fabricating alternative fuels provided some enlightening insights into the current capacity to produce alternative fuels. Processes such as batch fermentation of carbon monoxide acquired from industrial plants sighted by Laurel Harmon, Vice President Government Relations at LanzaTech, provided an alternative to the more conventional production of alternative fuels such as fermentation of feedstocks. New developments in the form of ‘pyrolysis’ were advocated by Jim Rekoske, Vice President and General Manager of Renewable Energy and Chemicals at Honeywell UOP. According to research, ‘pyrolysis’ can refine feedstock much more efficiently and cheaply than other methods still under development, and produce a final source of fuel costing between $2.50-$2.60 per gallon, compared to $3.00-$3.10 per gallon of conventional jet fuel at today’s prices, however it is still some way from implementation.

Still, finding sufficient finance to research and develop biofuels is certainly difficult for aviation. Combined with growing competition from other sectors, such as road transport, the fine profit margins in the aviation industry pose a significant problem to securing alternative sustainable fuels. This issue was reflected by many of the panel, but notably Richard Palmer, President and CEO of Global Clean Energy Holdings, who noted that the cost of refining feed stocks to the required standard for commercial aviation use was much higher than for biofuel used in other combustion fuelled sectors. From Dr. Stephan Singer’s point of view, Director Global Energy Policy for WWF International, this is exacerbated by the limited amount of available land to grow feed stocks, reiterating aviation’s weak position in comparison to its competitors for resources to produce alternative fuels.

According to John Plaza, President and CEO of Imperium Renewables, finding the capital to invest in biofuels is imperative if sustainable alternative fuels are to play the necessary part in offsetting emissions from the aviation industry.  Further to this, the panel concurrently agreed that regulation of alternative fuel standards must be broadly accepted to ensure the right investments are made. Joachim Buse, Vice President of Aviation Biofuel, Deutsche Lufthansa AG, specifically noted the importance of this for carrying fuel and refueling on cross-border and cross-continent flights. Increasing the necessity to resolve discrepancies in regulation, David Batchelor, Policy Officer for Aviation and Environment in DG MOVE of the European Commission, highlighted that those alternative and sustainable fuels not recognized by European regulation would not be exempted from the European Emissions Trading Scheme.

Conclusively, it appears that money and politics are the solutions to these challenges. Finding the right mix of finance and regulation will empower the industry enabling greater collaboration and therefore production of alternative fuels on time for climate change targets such as the EU’s 20% carbon emissions reductions by 2020. In the words of Joachim Buse, the aviation industry has spent enough time circling the tarmac and is keen for widespread take-off of alternative fuels.