What are the influencing factors for airlines when it comes to changing to more sustainable alternative fuels and adopting new technologies?

Part four in our future of flight series focuses on airlines, sharing insights from expert panellists who participated in our webinar on aerospace in 25 years’ time.

Airlines: sustainable fuels and the transition to new types of aircraft

Some might wonder whether, given the current Covid-19 crisis, airlines are focusing on their immediate survival rather than the new sustainable fuels or aircraft of the future. However, drawing on her experience as Senior Vice President at Airbus, Katherine Bennett highlighted that the whole industry has signed up to the carbon emission reduction targets – and the whole sector wants a sustainable industry in the future. Airlines want to use less fuel, and more sustainable fuel, and their customers are putting pressure on them to do so.

In order to meet this demand, there is an opportunity for the UK to play its part in the development of zero emission fuels. Katherine discussed Airbus’ ZEROe project, and the fuel system testing expertise available within the UK, where the Airbus design hub for fuel systems is based.

Sustainable aviation fuel is a key focus for our National Flying Laboratory Centre (NFLC) here at Cranfield. Recently discussing what the NFLC and aviation at Cranfield might look like in five to ten years, Professor Nick Lawson – Professor in Aerodynamics and Airborne Measurement who heads the NFLC – described running the laboratory on sustainable aviation fuel as key: “A five-to-10-year goal is to get our whole operation carbon neutral and credibly prove that we are a carbon neutral operation… We can then use this opportunity to talk to the students about it, and environmental awareness in regard to aviation, so students who are graduating from Cranfield or visiting from other universities and going into careers in aerospace actually understand some of the concepts about that. That’s the next thing that we need to plan to do.”

Touching on the type of sustainable fuels we might see becoming more prominent, Professor Lawson suggested that there will be a combination of biofuels and electrofuels. The NFLC will be able to adjust to the use of such fuels more quickly than the airline industry, Nick says, because the industry “uses a lot more fuel than we do and can’t afford to retire all of its current fleet.” While the NFLC could take the lead in adopting sustainable fuels, Nick believes that the airline industry could also transition to sustainable fuels over the next 15 years: “If you transition to carbon neutral fuels then it gives you a bit more time and you can keep the current aircraft running. This is because although the fuel is carbon-based, they're carbon neutral because you get the carbon from the CO2 already in the atmosphere so it's a carbon neutral cycle. It means that you don't have to wait for hydrogen or electrical aircraft to come along - you can transition gradually.”

Adopting new technologies

Discussing the speed of adoption when it comes to airlines taking up new technologies, Dr David Paisley (PhD Aerodynamics 1982), Technical Fellow/Product Development, Boeing, suggested that there is a lot of inertia in the system, because planes typically last 25-30 years in service. The introduction of electronic vertical take-off and landing, urban air mobility and incremental or leap-frog improvements to mainstream passenger airplanes will wash in slowly. However, he stated that there’s always an airline who is willing to be the pioneer – even if the ‘what’ and ‘where’ varies depending on what the technology is and what the regional demands are. When it comes to introducing new aircraft concepts, we need to take a long-term view. We can’t expect airlines to replace all of the aircraft in service overnight, and even if there was suddenly a zero emission craft overnight, it would take a long time to build enough of them to replace the current aircraft - which is why we need to start now.

Catch up on the previous articles in our future of flight series:

Stay tuned for the final instalment, coming next week, in which we share our panellist’s advice to current students and recent graduates who are looking to build a career in the industry in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis.