Clipping the wings of aviation

The world is finally tackling the pollution and noise impacts of flying, with technology and behaviour both set to play key roles

This year a perhaps belated attempt to reduce the environmental impacts of aviation is under way – the EU’s Clean Sky Joint Technology Initiative. The project, launched last month, represents a commitment by both the European Commission and the aerospace industry to make air travel more sustainable. The project’s goals include cutting CO2 and aircraft noise from EU aviation by 50%, and NO2 emissions by 80%.

Virgin Atlantic achieved its first demo flight partly powered by biofuel in February this year, while Boeing and GE Aviation have begun researching the long-term potential of biofuels for jets. Using food crops like soy beans won’t work, given that, according to a Boeing spokesman, a Seattle to Washington flight consumes 29 gallons of fuel per passenger, which would require half an acre of soybeans to supply.

“You would have to plant an area the size of Florida with soybeans to provide a 15% blend of jet fuel” for the whole US aircraft fleet, according to Dave Daggett, who heads energy and emissions research at Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ product-development unit, quoted by The Seattle Times in July last year.

From algae to taxiing

Aviation fuel is safety-critical, and jet biofuel development will accordingly be conducted with caution. The algae fuel target is attractive, though. Algae can be grown at breakneck speed almost anywhere where sunlight and nutrients can be combined in aquaculture facilities, on land not required for food crops or forestry.

Daggett estimated last year that a pilot plant for algae-based jet fuel could be in place in a year or so, with commercial supply maybe 10 years away.

Virgin is also hoping to start trials of towing planes to so-called ‘starting-grids’, in place of taxiing, enabling aircraft to cut their on-the-ground emissions by up to half. As for the planes themselves, Virgin’s Boeing 787 Dreamliners use nearly 30% less fuel than the Airbus A340s they are replacing, and are claimed to be up to 60% quieter. Turbofan engines likely to be available from between 2015 and 2020 may cut plane CO2 emissions further, by around 30%. The turned-up wingtips of some existing planes improve airflow, translating into slight fuel economy improvements.

Alternative routes

50 per cent of small businesses in the UK have adopted telephone conferencing, and 30 per cent use instant messaging to reduce their business travel, according to a 2007 RAC Foundation and British Chambers of Commerce report, ‘Business Travel: Choice or Necessity?’ But it seems that while these old technologies and the newer video telephony systems can usefully substitute much business travel between a business’s locations, they may be less likely to substitute flights to meetings involving complex communications.

Skype can put a face on a voice for groups of people, besides enhancing one-on-one conversations across continents for free, and camera-screen video telephony systems with software from firms such as Polycom can provide better quality for virtual group meetings between people in several overseas offices of one institution. Such systems require only modest investment in compatible hardware and software across a multinational’s local offices, although this could be harder to replicate across an organisation’s supplier or customer chain.

Cheaper by phone

BT is understandably a telephone conferencing enthusiast. Betsy Boyd, director of corporate communications and US channel marketing, says: “Our travel costs have been cut by around £135 million a year, which equates to a reduction in CO2 emissions by just short of 100,000 tonnes. In addition, reducing travel gives our professionals the opportunity to be more productive and supports a better work/life balance.”

The global conference industry is unlikely to be easily weaned off the attraction of getting people from different organisations to meet face to face at events in attractive locations, which are as much about networking as watching Powerpoint presentations. As for tourism, there’s clearly no electronic substitute to flying if you want to experience faraway locations at first hand.

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