Global Aviation – We Rely On It – With The Industry’s Ups and Downs

Posted on March 20, 2024 by Hank Boerner – Chair & Chief Strategist

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March 2024

by Hank Boerner – Chair and Chief Strategist, G&A Institute

Global Commercial Aviation and its Pluses and Minuses

We all seem to be flying here and there at some time, yes? The latest data tells the story – look at this from the U.S. Department of Transportation:

U.S. airlines carried 194 million more passengers in 2022 than in 2021, up 30% year-to-year. For the full year 2022, January through December, U.S. airlines carried 853 million passengers (unadjusted), up from 658 million in 2021 and 388 million in 2020.

Each flight generated GHG emissions with every passenger and freight mile flown.  Each passenger on board contributed “something” to GHG emissions build up just sitting in their seat and whizzing along at 500+ mph.

By some estimates aviation operations overall contributes 2.5 percent of carbon dioxide emissions and 3.5% counting non-CO2 impacts on climate.  That was one billion tonnes of CO2 emitted in 2018 according to OurWorldinData.org.

However small the individual passenger’s contribution may be seen as percentage of total global GHG emissions, solutions to reduce those collective contributions remain quite hard to find.

The major immediate options include considering the importance of de-carbonizing when considering aircraft design and manufacture, looking closely at flight operations procedures, and deciding types of fuel used. “SAF:” or sustainable aviation fuel is becoming more available.

The good news is that the airlines and aircraft manufacturers are trying.  There are challenges – consider that both Airbus and Boeing, the leading commercial aircraft manufacturers, have literally thousands of new airliners on back order.  Each when in entered into service will generate GHG. And airline travel is moving back toward pre-Covid pandemic levels.

Airline travel: it’s a wondrous advancement in human progress overall. We probably take airline travel for granted in 2024; but it was just 120 years ago on December 17, 1903 that the Wright Brothers of Dayton, Ohio mastered the air on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. with a controlled, powered flight in what we now know as an “aircraft”.

Fast forward: In 2024, the US Federal Aviation Administration estimates that each day there will be 45,000 flights scheduled with an estimated 2.9 million passengers moving across 29 million square miles of airspace in the U.S.. At this rate, some 10 million people will fly point-to-point each year in the domestic skies and across oceans to their destinations!

With this amazing progress over just 12 decades comes considerable environmental consequences. Writing in the Atmospheric Environment journal, a group of scholars in January 2021 posited that global aviation is helping to warm the Earth’s surface via complex processes such as emitting CO2, NOX, water vapor, soot and sulfate aerosols, and increased cloudiness resulting from contrails formation. This is the “radiating forcing (RF) effect”.

The world’s airline operators are trying to address the issues:  writing in the authoritative industry publication Air Transport World, (ATW) Linda Blachly pointed out that the global airline industry association, IATA, has set a collective “aspirational” goal of reducing CO2 emissions by 5% by 2030 by using sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).  (Note that 100-plus nations are members of IATA.)

Looking at possibilities in creating “sustainable aviation fuel” (SAF), the “go to” solution, writes Graham Warwick in ATW, the airline industry is “betting on hydrogen” to reach those agreed-to carbon net zero targets.

In the United Kingdom, EasyJet airlines is looking at hydrogen for its long-term de-carbonization effort — and for the global airline industry, “We see hydrogen as very complementary with SAF for the long-term decarbonization,” said Lahiru Ranasinghe, who heads the airline’ de-carb activities.

EasyJet is exploring the use of hydrogen as aircraft fuel with Airbus (aircraft manufacture), Rolls Royce (engines), Cranfield Aerospace Solutions (hydrogen-electric propulsion systems), and GKN Aerospace (systems and components manufacturing).

The collaborators, Ranasinghe told ATW, see hydrogen as a necessity for the airline industry to hit net zero by 2050 (hydrogen does not emit carbon to contribute further to GHG build up in the atmosphere).

As with other modern societal and technology advances, in global commercial aviation there are positive achievements to cheer and unwelcome consequences that are necessary to address as the climate change crisis presents myriad challenges for industry leaders and policy makers.  Stay tuned to notes of progress in the industry!

Air Transport World magazine (established back in the mid-1960s) is part of the Aviation Week family of publications and is read worldwide by the leaders in the airline and aerospace industries.

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Oops moment:  as I posted this, in came a report from The Netherlands.  Air France-KLM Airlines apparently made climate claims in advertising (talking about the environmental benefits of flying with the French Dutch carrier) and Dutch environmental groups sued in 2022.  A court decided in their favor yesterday (20 March), seeing “an overly rosy picture” in the ad campaign.

The campaign — “Fly Responsible – Be a Hero – Fly 2022 Zero” – has been discontinued, according to a report in Claims Journal (an insurance industry publication).  The airline dismissed the claim of greenwashing.

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Personal note:  I watch these developments with great interest; I was a contributing editor of ATW when I was a business and financial journalist, and later served American Airlines as the first corporate citizenship manager with projects and partnerships across the U.S.  In those days, “sustainability” was not a daily topic of conversation, of course.