The underlying impetus towards greening aviation is steadily growing

Book interview: Flying green ‘will put pressure on ticket prices’

Image credit: Dreamstime

What will it take for the next generation of climate-aware travellers to fly guilt-free? Christopher de Bellaigue examines what’s being done in the green aviation technology space.

Being able to commute vast distances around the planet in a matter of mere hours is a recent gift to humankind. Until the 20th century, we had depended on horses, trains and increasingly the internal combustion engine that propels the automobile. But as our thirst for getting from city to city, country to country, continent to continent multiplied, we came to rely on a self-propelled, heavier-than-air technology that only got off the ground in 1903 when Orville Wright piloted the gasoline-powered Flyer for 12 seconds over a distance of 120 feet.

As Christopher de Bellaigue says early in his superb ‘Flying Green’, this was the great moment of freedom. And yet a century on we now recognise that this liberty has come at a great cost. “We’ve learned a lot since then,” says de Bellaigue, “about freedom, about physics – a century’s worth of producing more planes, different planes, flying them farther, faster and designing them for a wider range of applications and for many more people.” 

These benefits have cascaded rapidly to a mass market with disposable income. For a long time, we didn’t consider the environmental implications of our weekend shopping trip to New York or our cheap Mediterranean getaway. What were we thinking, de Bellaigue wonders rhetorically? He answers his own question with a single word: “Nothing.”

The biggest problem with flying today is not so much how many people take to the skies. Paradoxically, it’s more a question of how many don’t. Considering four-fifths of the global population has never flown – 93 per cent of people living in China don’t even have a passport – there is massive growth potential for an industry already responsible for 19 per cent of global emissions. Since we’re unlikely to want to give up flying soon – although admittedly there are numerous anti-flying movements worldwide – the question becomes framed in the context of how the industry is going to fulfil its pledge to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

When it comes to transformative technologies in the 20th century, not much further happened after the introduction of the jet engine. The main concern of all airlines focused on operational cost, leading to design innovations that were incremental in terms of weight saving, fuel efficiency and other factors where a few fractions of a per cent could be shaved off. This was exacerbated when the industry became deregulated and new low-cost carriers including Southwest and Ryanair started to pack more passengers into their planes while stripping the service to the bone in order to reduce prices. To get an idea of how tight the squeeze was, in 1960 a one-way flight between London and New York cost $300. Today, 83 years later, you can expect to pay the same despite the fact that inflation has depreciated your $300 by getting on for 1,000 per cent.

But, says de Bellaigue, here in the third decade of the 21st century we are now on a new technology frontier that will change the way planes are powered and how they look. “There’s a chance,” he says, “that the cumbersome, needy, petulant, change-averse behemoth that is modern aviation is starting to rediscover the fearlessness and zest of the Wrights and in saving itself it will help to save the world.” 

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‘Flying Green’

The idea of sustainable and responsible green air transport at first glance seems to be a contradiction in terms. Flying is carbon-intensive and often touted as one of the worst things we can do to the ecological balance of the planet. And yet the notoriously resistant to change airline sector – as Christopher de Bellaigue notes in ‘Flying Green: On the Frontiers of New Aviation’ – has pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, “thrusting the industry into a period of innovation not seen since the Wright Brothers”. 

It is these frontiers of innovation that his Columbia Global Reports essay collection explores by talking to entrepreneurs, scientists and visionaries who are working to decarbonise jet fuel while testing and researching other methods of powering flight. A quick and easy read, ‘Flying Green’ is a superb state-of-the-art analysis of the competing pathways to a bold new frontier.

It is this shift in outlook that forms the core of ‘Flying Green’, a concept that he admits sounds, given all that happened in the first century of powered flight, like an impossibility. 

To find out what’s going on, de Bellaigue interviewed some of the smaller-scale entrepreneurs working on future flying. In Zurich he visited Climeworks, where he witnessed research into how aviation fuel can be made out of air. At the Sunfire headquarters in Dresden he looked at the production of pollutant-free e-fuel. He visited a biofuel plant in Mississippi, and another in Georgia that is producing low-carbon ethanol from sugarcane shipped from Brazil. In Palo Alto and in Gironde he reports on efforts to produce hydrogen combustion, battery-powered flight, as well as eVTOLs (electric vertical take-​off and landing vehicles), which could become the Ubers of the air. Finally, he pitches up in Iceland where Carbfix isolates excess carbon dioxide and injects it deep underground, turning it to stone. 

With so much research in the green aviation technology space, how did de Bellaigue decide where to visit? It turns out that he took an unsentimental view of proceedings, basing his strategy on which entrepreneurs were well capitalised and had patents. Following angel investors may not be enough, he says, because they’re so often wrong. 

“All of the companies I visited stand a chance because the underlying impetus towards greening aviation is palpable and growing. Decarbonising the sector will throw up different winners exploiting different technologies because no single one is enough. What’s already available – drop in fuels for example – needs to be scaled. What already exists in limitless quantities – hydrogen – needs investment.” The most exciting of all these, says de Bellaigue, is electric flight, but that “may take decades”. All of which raises the question of whether the multinational airlines will pay any attention to what’s going on in esoteric R&D labs. The author thinks there’s a chance that they will, given that often the airlines themselves are investing in the research. So how prepared are they to embrace these new green technologies? “Environmentalists think that the industry is insincere and engaged in greenwashing,” says de Bellaigue, who thinks this might be an overstatement but is not convinced. After all, “the airlines have finally committed themselves to net zero and are adopting green technologies, albeit at a glacial pace”. 

He goes on to say that while most of the people he spoke to in researching his book recognise that decarbonising the industry can only be good for the climate, ultimately the airlines make their profit from volume: the four billion individual passenger flights that happen every year. 

This figure might be hard to sustain when “greening costs money and that will put pressure on ticket prices”. De Bellaigue sees that as a good thing because “the days of taking a plane as heedlessly as taking a bus need to come to an end”.

‘Flying Green’ by Christopher de Bellaigue is from Columbia Global Reports, £11.99 


The cost of progress

Modern planes are built with millions of parts sourced from thousands of suppliers and made from a huge variety of materials. Every design challenge needs regulatory approval. ‘Clean sheet’ design, which means developing new aircraft from scratch, is phenomenally expensive, time-consuming and risky.

Studies for the world’s largest passenger plane, the Airbus A380, started in 1988. By the time it entered service, in 2007, behind schedule and over budget, its technology was already out of date and its guiding premise, that bigger was better, had been discredited. The A380 was too big to fill and too expensive to buy – its $445m price tag wasn’t sufficient to cover production cost, let alone recoup the estimated $25bn Airbus had spent developing it. The programme was finally put out of its misery in 2021, its debts to European governments unpaid.

For airlines nowadays, the best new plane isn’t a new plane at all. It’s a more efficient iteration of a plane they already know, and which they don’t need to retrain [pilots and technicians] to use. For decades, innovation has been directed at cutting costs. Winglets increase aerodynamism and reduce flight times. Computers obviate the need to fill the flight deck with expensively trained human beings. Intelligent scheduling also helps. By tinkering with engines, deadweight, drag, even cutting the weight of the inflight magazine, the airlines have been able to improve fuel efficiency by at least 1 per cent a year.

Tight margins are a consequence of liberalisation. Until the late 1970s, fares and routes were determined by governments. Then first in America and then in the EU, and later in growth markets like India – aviation was deregulated and became viciously competitive.

Extracted from ‘Flying Green’ by Christopher de Bellaigue, reproduced with permission.

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