Jackie Thompson / Geneva

“Could aviation follow the cigarette industry as public enemy number one?” This was the startling question posed to delegates at April’s Aviation & Environment Summit 2006 by Alexander ter Kuile of CANSO, which represents the interests of air navigation service providers worldwide. “Are we social outcasts just because we work for the aviation industry?”

And he was not alone in his concerns. “It feels like we are sitting on a panel of accused trying to defend ourselves,” complained Christian Scherer, Airbus executive vice-president of future programmes.

The Aviation & Environment Summit was first held in 2005 and is jointly organised by aviation industry bodies the Airports Council International (ACI), Air Transport Aviation Group (ATAG), Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (CANSO), IATA and the International Co-ordinating Council of Aerospace Industries Associations (ICCAIA) to “bring the entire air transport industry together, to consider major environmental challenges and communicate joint industry messages/data aimed at sustaining air transport’s development and securing its future growth”.

At the inaugural summit in 2005 the air transport industry adopted an action plan through which it committed to “develop and introduce the best available technologies and practices that would improve the industry’s environmental performance”.

“We must be constantly aware of how society perceives us,” warned ter Kuile. “Aviation has become a public symbol of globalism and industrialisation. It has a high visual impact,” he added.

It is within this visibility that the problem lies. No matter how many statistics are spouted in defence of air transport compared with other modes of transport or comparable industries, it is perceived – with its contrails and night time airport curfews – as the dirty man of the global economy. This is despite the fact that “the growth of aviation on a global basis is fundamental to the developing world’s development”, said John Begin, deputy director of IATA’s air transport bureau.

According to ATAG, aviation transports some 2 billion passengers annually, and 40% of interregional exports of goods by value. Its global economic impact is estimated at $2,960 billion, equivalent to 8% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP).

“While aviation is a catalyst for social and economic development around the world, it is a source of pollution,” said ICAO president Assad Kotaite in his opening remarks at this year’s summit. “While aviation’s total emissions are modest compared with other sectors they are not expected to decrease in the coming years,” he added.

Air transport is estimated to contribute 2% to global greenhouse gas emissions. 1kg (2.2lb) of jet fuel causes 3kg of CO2 to be released into the atmosphere and with an industry that is currently growing a rate of 5% a year, “the rate of growth is a fundamental problem”, said Tim Johnson, director of the UK-based Aviation Environment Federation. “The technological solution measured over time is significant,” he conceded, “but it does not offset this growth rate.”

Different parts of the world place varying emphasis on the three main contributors to pollution: noise, air quality and global emissions. According to Carl Burleson, FAA director, office of environment and energy, noise is the number one issue in the USA, whereas global emissions are the main focus for the European Union.

Because of this European emphasis on reducing emissions, European Commission (EC) proposals to include aviation in its emissions trading scheme are expected to be published this summer. IATA director general Giovanni Bisignani said that such trading is preferable to additional taxes and charges, but warned that it could still impose “substantial costs” on airlines. He said that targets and benefits must treat all airlines equally, and that trading should only apply to carbon dioxide emissions.

The European scheme has suffered an embarrassing setback, however, as figures released by the EC in May revealed that most member states had given their industries far too many pollution-permitting carbon credits. Under the current scheme no adjustment to the existing allocation of permits is allowed, said the EC.

“Too often governments are part of the problem rather than part of the solution,” said Bisignani. “Taxes are not the solution; they kill the social and economic benefits that aviation brings, particularly in developing countries. We need an approach that does not destroy the airlines’ ability to invest.”

Eurocontrol director general Victor Aguado agreed that emissions trading is one way of controlling the effect of aviation on the environment, but insists network efficiency is another vital method. “Emissions trading is just one element in reducing CO2 emissions, but it doesn’t solve the problem,” he insisted.

With one voice

Speakers in Geneva demonstrated vividly that there are many different opinions within the industry on the severity of the problem of global pollution and the part played by air transport in global pollution, as well as on the best way forward. What is increasingly clear is that the industry needs to be seen to be singing from the same hymn sheet.

Rather than finding an engineering solution to what are actually social and political problems, the industry needs to engage with the outside world. Kevin O’Toole, head of strategy with the Flight Group, who moderated the summit, suggests that IATA should galvanise an industry response through ATAG using the next ICAO Air Transport Conference in September 2007 as a deadline. “There is a need to engage with the general public. Their opinion is what matters, not the view of non-governmental organisations,” he insists.

“We need common aviation targets rather than a range of sometimes diverging targets proposed by various bodies and organisations. Aviation as a sector must demonstrate consistency in establishing its emissions levels objectives and the various options for attaining them,” said ICAO’s Kotaite. “We must be increasingly proactive in representing the aviation sector before the world community.”

The airline industry, which welcomed over two billion customers onto its aircraft last year, needs to ask them what they really feel aviation’s role in controlling its environmental impact should be. It may be that travellers are not ready to pay a premium to offset the carbon emissions from air travel or to journey by train rather than car occasionally, in which case perhaps the aviation industry cannot be expected to save the world on its own. ■

Green solutions

There are two tracks to reducing air transport’s environmental effect, apart from cutting the number of flights – operational and technological.

Speaking in Geneva, IATA director general Giovanni Bisignani stressed the importance of seeking alternative fuel sources. He added that jet fuel has remained unchanged over 40 years and that kerosene is still the most efficient fuel type for aircraft.

Alternative fuel sources must be able to satisfy long-term availability and cost requirements before they can become a reality. The use of synthetic fuel is the “most promising” option for the short- to medium-term, he noted, but current aircraft engines can only accept up to 50% synthetic fuel.

According to Mike Farmery, global fuel technical and quality manager at Shell Aviation, the long lifetime and high capital costs of aircraft mean there is little incentive to develop alternative fuels. He sees kerosene as the preferred fuel for the next 30 years.

Both Airbus and Boeing are currently investigating the use of fuel cells to power aircraft auxiliary power units (APUs). Airbus senior vice-president of product policy Philippe Jarry said it plans to test the use of fuel cells on board an A320 in flight during summer 2007 in conjunction with engine manufacturer General Electric.

Rival Boeing has also been researching fuel-cell technology and is hoping to fly a fuel cell-powered demonstrator aircraft later this year, said Boeing Commercial Airplanes director of systems concepts Timothy Petersen. He added that fuel cell applications, which use 75% less fuel and produce less carbon dioxide emissions, can be successfully used to power ram air turbines and APUs.

A number of operational moves have the potential to reduce noise and fuel consumption. These include the continuous descent approach, which is being tested and avoids the stepped approach currently in use. It has the potential to reduce noise contours by 30%, says Eurocontrol director general Victor Aguado.

Russell Davie, manager, line operations, at Cathay Pacific Airways, identified inefficient air traffic control systems and procedures as the single largest cause of fuel wastage. He believes that 10-12% savings are possible, but that significant political commitment would be required.


Heathrow’s runway battle

The proposal for a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport arouses strong passions. Jeff Gazzard, campaigner with the Greenskies Alliance, made up of European environmental non-governmental organisations and citizen groups, demonstrated the depth of public feeling when he challenged British Airways general manager for airport policy Paul Ellis – who not surprisingly supports the runway plan – to “come and settle the matter in the car park”, which raised a laugh, but there was no mistaking his sincerity as he insisted he would “die in a ditch before he let them build a third runway”.

Given the interminable time it took for Terminal 5 to become a reality, there is little prospect of an additional runway, planned for the northern side of the airport, being built before 2015, according to Ellis.

Source: Airline Business