It would be hard to imagine a world without air travel, the industry alone is a huge global driver of economic, social and cultural development but at what environmental cost?
The environment is a huge talking point throughout the aviation industry and in particular, airlines are under ever increasing scrutiny to adopt innovative ways to promote sustainability, reduce waste, noise and fuel emissions. But can aviation truly ever be a green industry?
Carbon emissions from aviation fuel are central to the climate change debate, with air travel often blamed for having an enlarged impact on the average consumer’s carbon footprint.
We take a look at six ways airlines are innovating in environmental sustainability:
#1 Weight reduction
Weight reduction is one way that some airlines are reducing their CO2 emissions. Lighter aircraft = less fuel burned.
From using lighter nets and pallets for cargo transportation to lightweight trolleys, seats and fixtures in the cabin, these seemingly marginal contributions can add to major gains.
#2 In the cabin
Some airlines have reported that introducing digital reading options and the concept of ‘paper free cockpits’ has reduced their waste paper by up to 360,000 kilos every year. For those who enjoy reading a free physical newspaper on board, these may soon become a thing of the past.
Westjet is one airline that has looked to save weight through the removal of it’s seat-back screens. The airlines says this will save around 500kg per aircraft. It is likely we will see other airlines begin to do this as most people have their own devices and on-board wifi improves in quality of travel experience.
#3 Flying on biofuel
Biofuel programmes are being introduced by some of largest global carriers. Qantas just hit the headlines after they used mustard seeds in first ever biofuel flight between Australia and US.
But they were not the first, KLM became the world's first airline to operate a commercial flight using sustainable biofuel, and in 2016 they signed a 3-year deal for the supply of sustainable biofuel in Los Angeles. By using sustainable biofuel, KLM claims they can reduce their CO2 emissions by as much as 80% compared to fossil fuels.
#4 Waste separation and recycling
The scale of in-flight catering is astonishing and waste is the biggest downside, should you look around at the end of the flight, you will notice how many discarded plastic bottles, tissues and half-eaten meals litter the cabin.
According to the International Air Transport Association, airlines produced 5.2 million tons of waste in 2016 and will produce over 10 million tons annually by 2030.
This is a huge problem for the industry and stocking food that comes in recyclable packaging is one solution, but only if the airline has the facilities to actually separate and recycle. Even with the best intentions from the airline, they will be often let down by the lack of airport recycling facilities.
Some airlines are now recognising the issue by introducing less single-use plastics, introducing recyclable utensils, recycling bins and pre-flight meal ordering systems to reduce food waste.
#5 Efficient fleets
Over the past decade, engineers have broken new ground in engine design and sustainable fuel, helping to reduce emissions. Creating light yet powerful engines is one of the biggest ambitions for aviation engineering.
The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is a great example of engineering innovation and two great examples are the task of lightening the engines, this includes switching to lighter materials where possible, such as using titanium aluminide instead of nickel alloy for some rotary blades.
Similarly the A320family neo aircraft emits 50% less noise and burns 15% less fuel than the original A320.
#6 Carbon offsetting
Carbon offsetting is simply a way for individuals or organisations to “neutralise” their proportion of an aircraft’s carbon emissions on a particular journey by investing in carbon reduction projects.
Over 30 IATA member airlines have introduced an offset program either integrated into their web-sales, engines or to a third party offset provider.
There is still a long way to go before the industry can claim to be green, but it’s reassuring to see how many companies are investing in sustainability and innovations.
Running an airline is a competitive business, but despite the issues consumer thirst for global connectivity continues to rise. Time will tell how the industry grows and develops their sustainability efforts.
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