Opinion - January 6, 2020

Aviation Needs Climate Pioneers

- Photo by Airbus SAS

Written by Bertrand Piccard 5 min read

This joint Opinion Editorial is written by Anne Rigail, Chief Executive Officer of Air France, and Bertrand Piccard, Chairman of the Solar Impulse Foundation. It was originally published in Le Monde.

(read the original article in French)

The first 50 years of aviation history saw many disruptive innovations. We progressed from the Wright Brothers’ Flyer to the Boeing 707. In the following half-century, there was certainly optimization of quality, but the latest Airbus 340 still looks quite like the 707. Faced with environmental challenges, how can we get back on the disruptive track?

Aviation has today become a climate change scapegoat. Even though many other industries emit more CO2, the flygskam phenomenon - shame of flying - reflects a generation’s unease about the aviation sector. Although this sector accounts for only 2 to 3% of total greenhouse gas emissions, airlines are held responsible for all evils. They need to speed up implementation of their commitments and communicate them better.

We must not forget that aviation is one of the most fantastic technological advances in human history. Leaving aside its fundamental role in economic exchanges and the millions of jobs created, the advent of air travel has brought major benefits in terms of openness to the world and opportunities for cultural exchanges. In 2018, 4.3 billion passengers traveled by air.

Many find it hard to conceive of flying in a responsible way, with minimal negative impact on the environment. But might it not be possible to reconcile one of the most formidable innovations of our time with the ecological imperative? We are fully convinced that it is, but this means changing a few paradigms. In 2003, when the Solar Impulse project was launched, experts in the field thought it was impossible. According to them, the sun would not provide enough energy. But as it turned out, the Solar Impulse prototype was so efficient that the energy it accumulated during the daylight hours was enough for it to fly 24 hours a day. Solar Impulse's message was clear: with clean technologies you can achieve the impossible.

In order to tackle its carbon footprint head-on, the airline industry must draw on the long tradition of innovation that has made it so successful. By making full use of the potential offered by emerging technological and operational solutions, we can tackle this challenge together now. We can act without delay, without waiting to be forced by regulators.

On the operational side, we urgently need to accelerate the Single European Sky project, so that we can adopt more direct routes. We have been waiting for this for too long. We now have software that can analyze pilots' flight plans and provide recommendations that would save up to 5% fuel. We also need to generalize the practice of ecopiloting which yields significant fuel savings. An example of this in flight is to make unbroken, constant angle descents to final approach. On the ground, taxying with only one engine running can save up to 700 kg of fuel.

As regards technology, changes are afoot. Manufacturers are working on electric aircraft programs. Two-seaters and four-seaters already exist, and we'll see aircraft with many more seats in the future. Hybridization is also promising: a turbine running at its optimum efficiency to produce electricity for the engines would consume virtually half the kerosene burnt by current turbojet engines.

On long-haul flights, the use of 100% biofuel could be technically possible, but will face challenges: lack of availability and of a supply chain, particularly in France, and absence of government incentive policies. Meanwhile, what about hydrogen?

While we wait for all these innovations to enter service, offset is a useful transitional solution... it’s certainly better than doing nothing.

We have cited just a few examples, but there are many others that we still need to identify and implement on a large scale. This is precisely the goal of the partnership announced between Air France and the Solar Impulse Foundation, which aims to select and endorse profitable technologies that protect the environment. Together, we are launching an invitation to submit workable solutions. We will work together to single out projects enabling the aviation sector to achieve its environmental objectives.

Air France recently announced its intention to reduce its CO2 emissions per passenger / km by 50% by 2030, to reduce its non-recycled waste by 50%, and to continue reducing its noise footprint. It also announced its decision to fully offset all CO2 emissions from its domestic flights by 2020, creating momentum among other companies. The airlines that have decided to take concrete action to reduce their impact, rather than resist change, show that they are up for the challenge of climate change and are renewing the spirit of innovation demonstrated by the early pioneers in aviation history.

Bertrand Piccard, Chairman, Solar Impulse Foundation

Anne Rigail, Chief Executive Officer, Air France

Written by Bertrand Piccard on January 6, 2020

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