Last year, Danish flag carrier SAS announced a new partnership with Airbus, in which the two parties vowed to research hybrid and electric passenger aircraft. In a press release, the Scandinavian airline said the deal was part of its goal to “reduce emissions by 25% by 2030, mainly by modernizing the fleet and increasing the use of biofuels.”
“We see electric aircraft as the next step beyond the current technology,” the release continued. It proudly boasted the eye-catching news in ads posted in the halls of Oslo-Gardermoen and Copenhagen-Kastrup.
Given the IATA figure that air transport is responsible for 2% of all global man-made CO2 emissions, the idea of electric aircraft continues to captivate the world’s attention. Every now and then, a major headline probes the question: “When will we have electric planes?”
That question is being asked with increasing urgency in the face of startling facts, such as the European Commission forecast that global international aviation emissions in 2020 will be about 70% higher than they were in 2005.
Right now, unfortunately, there is no answer to that question yet. While electric engine technology is making enormous strides within other transportation sectors such as automotive and marine, there are unique technological and regulatory challenges within the air travel sector that make it truly impossible to predict a delivery date.
Building electric aircraft, however, is not the only way to reduce emissions in the commercial aviation sector. More and more airlines, OEMs, aviation technology providers, and other partners and suppliers are responding to the global demand for more environmentally friendly travel.
Whether or not electric or zero-emission aircraft will become a reality in our lifetimes, there are many things the airline industry can do right now to reduce carbon emissions and make air travel a little friendlier for the environment.
Big and small changes the industry is making
When it comes to reducing emissions inside the airline industry, there are so many avenues to explore.
There are big-picture changes, like the cap-and-trade/emissions trading schemes that have existed in the European Union since 2012. The European Commission says that the system alone has reduced the sector’s carbon footprint by 17 million tonnes a year and that it has compliance covering 99.5% of emissions.
Another big-picture change is making infrastructure improvements, including modernized air traffic control and management systems that reduce delays, better streamline ascents/descents, and ultimately save huge amounts of fuel.
But there are also other, smaller changes that companies themselves can make.
Think about a typical flying experience. As a passenger, you may have a few dozen snack, meal, and beverage options available to you. To match its menu offerings, the airline has to stock each product on board, even if some items aren’t going to be particularly popular with a particular flight’s customers. What if companies used consumers’ data to better predict what food and drinks they will order? This would not only help save fuel by reducing onboard weight, but also lead to less food spoilage, packaging waste, and unnecessary manufacturing.
What about using a higher percentage of recycled plastics and metals in the manufacturing of aircraft interiors, and making sure that end-of-life products can be disassembled and recycled? Panasonic makes sure its hardware complies with both these tenets.
And then, what about biofuels? What about using new technologies to improve the efficiency of heating, cooling, and air filtration systems while at the same time reducing the amount of power they consume?
There are a hundred more “what abouts,” and every change that leads to reduced emissions—no matter how incremental it may seem—is a net positive. Better still, reducing emissions isn’t just a responsibility; it’s also an opportunity.
“There are a hundred more “what abouts,” and every change that leads to reduced emissions—no matter how incremental it may seem—is a net positive. Better still, reducing emissions isn’t just a responsibility; it’s also an opportunity.”
Zero-emission goals bring new opportunities
Airlines and other companies inside the industry are not alone when it comes to innovations surrounding emissions reduction. In fact, collaboration and universal standards are essential when it comes to effecting meaningful change. And therein lie new opportunities, too.
For instance, imagine a scenario in which airlines sell a total transportation package—that is, partnering with local companies to provide zero-emission ground transport to and from their departure and arrival airports. Passengers could book this at the time of their ticket purchase, or by using the shopping portal on their inflight entertainment systems to book it at the last minute. Similarly, travel agencies could package eco-tourism offerings that are made available through airline booking portals or IFEC systems.
Services like these aren’t only an opportunity for the airline to generate ancillary revenues; they are genuinely helpful services that customers will appreciate.
On a grander scale, collaboration is also central to the success of reducing aviation emissions. In 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) adopted a resolution for the establishment of the Global Market Based Measure (GMBM), a tool to offset aviation’s CO2 emissions and promote the goal of carbon-neutral growth in the industry. To accomplish those goals requires true global cooperation.
In its four-pronged climate strategy, IATA supports GMBM and lists it along with three other pillars, which are:
- New technology, including the deployment of sustainable alternative fuels
- More efficient aircraft operations
- Infrastructure improvements, including modernized air traffic management systems
Environmental policy is a must in today’s industry
When it comes to climate change, there are a lot of incentives for companies to adopt greener practices and reduce their emissions. But perhaps there is no greater motivator than customers themselves.
More and more consumers around the planet are thinking more critically about what their hard-earned money is supporting. Increasingly, they’re using those dollars to “vote” for companies that align with their values.
Companies that do a good job of reading the room and adapting when it comes to sustainability stand to gain higher esteem in the eyes of consumers. Taking an environmental stance, setting emissions targets, and pledging to do things differently in the future is a cornerstone of corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies. Air France-KLM has made reducing its environmental footprint a key pillar in its approach to CSR, earning the airline the leading position among airlines in the 2019 Dow Jones Sustainability Indices.
We, too, can attest to the impact of this approach; Panasonic Avionics pursues many innovations, partnerships, and strategies in tandem to reduce our eco-footprint.
Besides making an environmental change, there is evidence to suggest that CSR improves the reputations of companies that embrace it—and in the aviation business, reputation is everything.
Find out what Panasonic is doing to reduce its emissions.