[COMMENTAIR by Ivog]: SAF, electricity and CO2 neutrality…

In the last few years, the topic of greater environmental protection has become increasingly prevalent in aviation. Although they worked on environmental protection in aviation before, this topic has now become one of the most important ones. Every now and then we hear many airlines boasting that they have the greenest and youngest fleet, that they emit less CO2 per passenger compared to the competition or the aviation average. Aircraft manufacturers brag that their aircraft consume less and less fuel and emit less and less harmful gases, but in the end it turns out that this is not enough, that air transport needs to be “greened” even more. Aviation is often crucified in the media as one of the biggest polluters in the world. Of course, we cannot say that aviation does not contribute to the release of harmful gases, on the contrary. However, there are also many other industries that pollute much, much more, but they are not condemned as much. Let’s mention cars, they are among the biggest polluters in the world, and every year the number of cars only increases. In the last few years, the electric car market has started. Yes, they don’t emit harmful gases, they don’t emit gases at all, but then again, that electricity needs to be produced somehow. Very often, electricity is produced with the help of fossil fuels, and then again we have the release of harmful gases. This means that an electric car does not emit harmful gases directly, but indirectly. We won’t mention the challenges with batteries, from getting them to the recycling. Or take the fashion industry, which is also one of the major polluters. The goal now is not to point the finger at some industry and tell you who is more to blame, all industries should initiate a greater concern for environmental protection. Also, all countries of the world should accept the same rules of the game.

We have to determine if we all want to make the air transport more green and reduce CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. The answer will always be of course.

The number of passengers grows unstoppably from year to year. Let’s consider the time of the pandemic when aviation was practically at a standstill, but it came back and is now reaching the prepandemic figures. In many large markets such as China or India, with the growth of standards, the demand for transportation is also growing, and ot has only just begun to gain momentum, especially in India.

Many of us want to travel as much as possible, especially when some low-cost carrier offers ttickes at a price of ten euros. With flying and increasing traffic, we also contribute to greater emissions of harmful gases. Again, we can ask the question whether we ourselves want to reduce our air travel. For example, do we want to go to a neighboring country or get to know our own country, instead of going on vacation to warmer regions in the winter? If we have to travel from Zagreb, for example, to Amsterdam, do we want to go by public land transport instead of by plane? Is there an alternative to air transport at all? We can say that there is an alternative, for all distances, but there is also the question of whether we can afford to spend additional time for travel. So, instead of a 2-hour flight, to spend a day or two traveling by bus. Also sometimes, these trips are much more expensive compared to air travel.

At least in Europe, rail transport is mentioned as a great savior. Let’s face it, the railway is an excellent form of transport. It’s comfortable, it takes you to the city center, they don’t check your luggage. But the problem is the infrastructure. Perhaps in France and Germany, air transport can be replaced by rail, but unfortunately it cannot be done in a good part of Europe. For example, you can reach most of the surrounding countries with Croatian Railways, but the travel time and the number of departures are unfortunately not the best for travelers. If we want to go south, there are already first obstacles. It is not possible to take a direct train from Croatia to Sarajevo or, for example, Belgrade. Unfortunately, the railway infrastructure in Eastern Europe is not satisfactory. So, only a part of Europe could be switched to rail transport on some shorter distances, for example up to 300-400 kilometers, while the rest are unfortunately not so lucky.

IATA, EU, USA and others have pledged to become CO2 neutral by 2050. Although 2050 is roughly 27 years away, so it seems like there is still plenty of time until then, it will come very quickly. The question is whether there is enough time for such a big change in aviation. All the changes so far have been relatively small compared to what was planned. There would be no great challenges in decarbonization of aviation if they had all the technologies ready for application at this moment. If these technologies were ready. Still, there would be some challenges, because aviation is a big industry, there are tens of thousands  commercial aircraft in the world. Many aircraft are of older generations, and need to be replaced by new generation aircraft. But the challenge is that the manufacturers don’t have the capacity to replace the entire fleet of aircraft in the world in the next several years. Just for example, an aircraft delivered today, in 2023, will be 27 years old in 2050 and will be an old aircraft and very likely an older generation aircraft. So even the current most modern fleets will become old in almost 30 years. In order to keep the fleets in the world relatively young and to keep up with the latest technologies, they will have to be replaced with newer ones at least once between now and 2050.

Air cargo growth practically exploded in the pandemic. Less and less is bought in stores and shopping centers, and more and more is bought online. We want to receive what we buy online as soon as possible, we cannot and do not want to wait several months for a new mobile phone to be delivered to us from, for example, China. We want it within a few days. It is precisely this segment of express shipments that has grown strongly and for now the trend is further growth. Here, airplanes are again a crucial tool for transporting the cargo we want right away. Likewise, the transport of fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, fish, pharmaceutical products, everything we need for life. If these supply chains were to be cut off, some countries would almost be left “starving”, with a lack of medicine, and this all leads to a decrease in the quality of life.

In the next part of the text, we will take a look at some of the directions for the decarbonization of air transport.

Sustainable aviation fuel is most often mentioned, at least at the moment, because it is most affordable. This fuel is not produced from oil, but the raw material for the production of these fuels is, for example, waste oil from the kitchen, biomass and other sources of raw materials.

The challenges with sustainable aviation fuel are its quantity and cost. The production of this fuel costs much more than classic oil production. Even if we turn a blind eye to the price, again the challenge is with its quantity, it is simply not possible to produce enough to meet the demand. Airlines sign contracts with oil companies on the supply of sustainable aviation fuel, but if we look at the total amount they need over the years, it is only a small percentage. However, since there is currently no obligation to use sustainable aviation fuel, at least for now it is more or less on a voluntary basis, carriers are not in a hurry and do not force the massive introduction of sustainable fuel. It’s a similar story to when we drive our car to a gas station and start filling up. Most found themselves in a dilemma whether to fill in premium or regular fuel. Premium now costs a lot more and has become a luxury, most drivers will use regular fuel, because it will save money. Here we can draw a parallel with aviation. Premium fuel is sustainable aviation fuel, and it costs several times more than conventional fuel, what do you think the carriers will choose? In order to remain competitive and take care of their profits, they will definitely use classic fuel. Sustainable fuels are used for promotional purposes or in some special projects. Rarely, when buying a ticket, will a passenger say, “I will pay a higher ticket price to fly on a flight that uses sustainable aviation fuel.” For passengers, the primary thing is the price, then the time of departure, maybe even the plane they are flying with, so somewhere near the end of the list will be the use of sustainable aviation fuel. But it is very likely that the vast majority of passengers are not even familiar with the term sustainable aviation fuel.

Aircraft and engine manufacturers are working to prepare aircraft to use 100% sustainable fuel, and they want to achieve this in this decade. Now, only mixtures of classic sustainable aviation fuel in various percentages are used most often.

Every day there are more and more companies that want to make an electric plane. Electricity would be an ideal fuel if it didn’t have one big problem, which is energy storage. Batteries that are too heavy are the biggest burden, so to speak. Because of this, most of these companies were focused on small regional aircraft, many airlines order these aircraft and invest in the companies. However, global aviation needs aircraft with at least 100 seats. This is very difficult to achieve for now, at least in the next ten years, in order to reach 2050 and produce enough aircraft to see changes.

Airbus presented its hydrogen-powered aircraft concept. Hydrogen is often mentioned as the fuel of the future, which will revolutionize aviation. However, the challenge with hydrogen is its storage.

With all these new technologies there is an even bigger challenge, the infrastructure. For electric airplanes, every airport should have charging stations. Hydrogen requires infrastructure for storage, transport and charging. These are not small investments, and the question is wether small airports can afford such an investment. Large airports have large budgets and can push through such a project, but small ones with limited funds can hardly finance and carry it out. Governments, funds and other sources of financing will clearly have to get involved here. We ourselves know how it goes with such tenders and projects, it is necessary to finance the project documentation first, then obtain all building permits, then tenders for construction with a few appeals. The electrical infrastructure does not seem so challenging, because every airport has a power connection, but there is a challenge to bring a sufficient amount of power, especially if there are more charging stations.

Aircraft manufacturers are trying to find their vision of how to reduce fuel consumption, how to bring some new technologies into aviation, maybe bring new revolutionary designs of the planes themselves.

For decades, there has been talk about the flying wing as a new revolutionary design, but among passenger planes we still see the classic design with “tube and hooked wings”. If we look at some of the reasons, the new design would have to bring adjustments in the airports regarding the acceptance of aircraft and their placement in parking positions. Just remember the challenge with the A380, where airports had to have separate parking positions for that aircraft. They faced challenges if they only had one parking position available for this aircraft, and during the day several airlines arrived. If one of the aircraft couldn’t take off for some reason and remained occupying that parking spot, this meant that the next plane coming did not have a parking space.

Boeing was recently selected by NASA in a project to design and manufacture a new wing that could bring major savings in fuel consumption.

Aviation certainly expects big changes in the years to come, and especially by 2050. Whether it will succeed as planned by then or if the deadline will have to be moved a little remains to be seen. The big challenge will definitely be the technology that must enable all of this, which unfortunately is not in sight. There is in theory, but practice is a bit more of a challenge. The big question is whether the “greening” of the airline industry will also mean the disappearance of cheap air travel, and whether we will have to change our travel habits. But in the end, it is always the passengers who will pay for all of these changes.

We can certainly expect interesting times to come in the aviation industry.

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