Mounting political pressure is forcing airframers and operators to tackle the effects of air travel on climate change

The unashamed shot across global aviation's bows fired by European politicians on the eve of the Paris air show seemed finally to tip the balance, rousing the industry sufficiently to herald the launch of several unprecedented collaborative environmental ventures.

The recent EU transport ministers' warning salvo that Europe would go it alone if ICAO fails to make progress on global emissions trading provided evidence - should anyone actually need further proof of the looming threat of external constraint - of the sheer momentum of the political machine at a time of explosive growth in air travel.

While Europe insists on what it views as its right to impose market-based measures on international aviation from 2012 in an effort to address air travel's contribution to climate change, aviation regulators on both sides of the Atlantic got busy tackling what has always been seen as an area where the industry can secure a quick win - operations.

The Atlantic Interoperability Initiative to Reduce Emissions (AIRE) gate-to-gate research initiative, launched at Paris by Europe and the USA, will aim to reduce, within four years, carbon dioxide emissions on transatlantic flights in an open skies era, focusing on the work of the USA's Next Generation Air Transportation System (NGATS) and the EU's Single European Sky (SESAR) programmes.

Any discernible lack of effort here will certainly not be excused as greenhouse gas regulators bring aviation squarely within their sights. But next-generation aircraft programmes and alternative fuels are seemingly being afforded the luxury of extra blue-sky laboratory time.

Even so, alternative fuels development is speeding up, with the US Air Force planning to certify its entire fleet to fly on a 50-50 synthetic fuel mix by 2010. It has already tested a 50-50 blend of synthetic and standard jet fuels in B-52 bombers, completing certification cold-weather testing in January.

Although limiting dependence on imported oil is the principal motivating factor for the US Air Force, commercial aviation will also benefit from the military's efforts.

Indeed, the US Department of Defense and the Federal Aviation Administration are already working on scoping studies to develop a national roadmap on the viability of alternative fuels for aviation - in terms of feasibility, costs, barriers and technical issues as well as environmental benefits.

Speaking at Paris, FAA administrator Marion Blakey said the studies should be ready in September, probably providing the all-important commercial fillip for the fuel industry to invest heavily in developing alternatives.

Alternative fuels offer a jam-tomorrow feelgood factor, but any prospect of a commitment to develop a next-generation narrowbody was, unsurprisingly, not forthcoming - with the two principal airframers refusing to be forced into making any premature pronouncements or into expressing jointly held views on what many people regard as aviation's next great challenge.

This was despite Airbus chief Louis Gallois's call, on the eve of the Paris show, for an industry parlay between chief executives from airframe and engine manufacturers to chart a course for a more environmentally sustainable future for the industry.

Fuel burn

Although both Airbus and Boeing point out that their newest products will have a per-passenger fuel burn of less than 2.9 litres per 100km against a current fleet average of 5 litres, Boeing insists it doesn't expect to bring its long-awaited 737 replacement to the market until 2015.

Gallois, meanwhile, has committed to a 25% budget increase in research and technology starting in 2008, as well as a pledge to revisit fuel-cell and hydrogen technology to power ground operations at airports.

But any commitment Gallois may make on fresh R&D funding could depend on an imminent World Trade Organization ruling in the ongoing transatlantic dispute over how large aircraft programmes are funded.

Refusing to be pressured into playing a game of developmental chicken by environmentally conscious airlines or any competitive move by its chief rival, Boeing says it much prefers to catch the crest of the next technological wave when advanced airframe materials, systems and engine technologies will enable a minimum 15% reduction in direct operating costs.

The year 2015 will also see the fruits of Europe's largest-ever research project, the �1.6 billion ($2.15 billion) public-private Clean Sky joint technology initiative, which aims to deliver industrial breakthroughs in time for major fleet renewals.

Launched at Paris, the idea is to develop full-scale demonstrators over the next seven years to assess individual technologies at fleet level and bring innovative technologies to a maturity where they can be applied to next-generation aircraft.

Boeing's thinking on industrial timescales runs in parallel with the European view, and it insists that only advances on such a step-change scale will justify launching an all-new aircraft.

As far as the aircraft manufacturing industry is concerned, it's a case of "same old, same old" which, for all its efforts to reduce aviation's impact on the environment, can only offer the sobering reflection that technological advances will struggle to keep pace with the rapidly increasing demand for air travel.

Source: Flight International