Thursday, 10 October 2019

Aviation is trying hard to go green…

I have been feeling the winds of change blowing through the European Regions Airline Association (ERA) General Assembly in Juan Les Pins this week.

The airline community has been engaging with environmental issues for just about as long as I've been coming here, but to some extent this has been as a response (not always as well argued as it might be) to being framed as the whipping boy for all the world's environmental problems.
Now it's all starting to feel rather more serious and, indeed, coherent.

So, yesterday, we saw John Slattery, CEO of the promised new joint venture between Brazil's Embraer and American giant Boeing, showing a picture of Greta Thunberg at a press conference called to tell the world about the new Embraer E190 E2 – not to suggest she was some kind of pariah, but rather, an inspiration.
John Slattery – "We will be held accountable"

“My 13-year-old daughter says ‘You are running an aircraft manufacturing company. What are you doing about this?’,” he said. “We will be held accountable,” he continued: “How we build aircraft; the kind of aircraft we build; and how we operate them.”

In fact, the airline industry doesn’t have such a terrible environmental story to tell, as improved technology continues to yield significant improvements to emission levels of CO2 and NOx, alongside reduced noise footprints.

Of course, the airline industry can make the most of the happy coincidence that environmental improvements tend to go hand in hand with economic benefits: no airline is going to turn up its nose at reduced fuel burn or lower seat-kilometre costs.

This is not the case in some other sectors, most notably the cruise industry, which is up there at the top of the league of fastest growing polluters on the planet. That industry could reduce its pollution at a stroke by stopping burning low quality fuel – but such “dirty fuel” is much cheaper than the cleaner variety, so there’s simply no rush to be clean.

In all this, it pays to keep sight of the fact that, although aviation is growing, it still accounts for only about two per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and is constantly smartening up its act. Which is another way of saying that we could all follow Greta’s symbolic example and stop flying tomorrow, but 98 per cent of the problem would still be there.

So, Embraer-Boeing’s new E2 boasts an eight per cent reduction in emissions yet a 23 per cent increase in capacity over the type it replaces. And Mitsubishi’s redesigned Space Jet series promises a similar quantum leap in efficiency.

Indeed emission reduction has been the key element of all the major manufacturers’ announcements at the Assembly. In announcing its new short take-off and landing ATR 42 600S, due to enter service in 2022, ATR’s CEO Stefano Bortoli said the aircraft would use 40 per cent less fuel than the equivalent jet, emit 40 per cent CO2, and generate significantly less noise.

Then it was the turn of Amaya Rodriguez-Gonzalez, Head of Single Aisle Product Marketing, at Airbus. The Airbus A220 series promises 20 per cent lower fuel-burn per seat and a 13 per cent cost advantage, while also offering a roomier cabin than its rivals.
Amaya Rodriguez-Gonzalez, of Airbus

De Havilland Canada, the revived name for the manufacturer of what was the Bombardier Dash 8 Q400, promises further life for the popular type, with a carbon footprint half that of the equivalent jet.
And the industry has not lost sight of moving away from fossil fuels: Embraer continues its review of the opportunity to introduce hybrid turbo-electric aircraft “in the mid to late-2030s”. And all this while work continues at Cranfield to develop an all-electric passenger aircraft.

A far greater existential threat to European civil aviation than environmental considerations is surely posed by the lingering promise to rewrite Article 261 – the European law that requires passenger compensation for delays and cancellations.

ERA President Montserrat Barriga said it was not essentially the original legislation that was the problem, but successive reinterpretations by the European Court of Justice that were now threatening to compromise airline safety by putting pressure on companies to fly in unsafe conditions for fear of incurring penalties.
ERA President Montserrat Barriga

Pending a report at the end of this year into the European Commission’s review of the law, the ERA has conducted its own review, with greater input from regional airlines – the European process sought more input from compensation claims companies than from the airlines themselves.

The ERA fear is that the likely changes will not be to the benefit of consumers by forcing airlines to withdraw from marginal routes, thus leaving remoter regions without connections. Indeed, she said the number of city pairs served within Europe had already fallen by 20 per cent due to Article 261, she said. The context for this is compensation claims that quite simply eclipse the total revenue (not even the profit margin) for the flight in question.

The ERA report advocates a compensation model based on the recently introduced Canadian system.
Another issue facing the industry is flight crew shortages and in this, back to Embraer, where Slattery offers a disarmingly simple solution: increase the measly four per cent of pilots who are women and, at a stroke, provide new career opportunities for the likes of his daughter!

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