Going green and tackling the climate challenge remain top priorities for Europe's regional airlines
Fri 18 June 2020 – Despite the challenges facing the industry today as a result of Covid-19, green issues remain at the top of the agenda for our members, writes Montserrat Barriga (right), Director General of the European Regions Airline Association (ERA). Hence, ERA conducted and has now published its first sustainability report, outlining our sector’s efforts in the fight against climate change, which represents one of the biggest threats to the existence of the air transport industry. With movements such as ‘flygskam’ (flight shame) having grown exponentially in 2019 and negatively impacting aviation demand, tackling the climate challenge has become a matter of survival for the aviation sector. The regional airline industry has been responding to this public and political pressure, and working to achieve efficiency improvements.
ERA’s Green and Sustainable Connectivity report – which was conducted prior to the Covid-19 pandemic – outlines these efforts, as well as ERA’s airline members’ emissions data and a technology review exploring the different decarbonisation technologies available for aviation, including benefits and barriers for implementation.
The aviation sector has long been concerned about its environmental footprint and in 2009 it became the first industry to set sector goals for CO2 emission reductions globally. These goals included to stabilise net CO2 emissions from 2020 through carbon-neutral growth and to reduce net CO2 to half of 2005 levels by 2050. As the report highlights, since setting these ambitious goals the industry has continued to improve its environmental efficiency by reducing average fuel burn by 24% between 2005 and 2017, and each new generation of aircraft is on average 20% more fuel efficient than the model it replaces.
With not only one solution to tackle the issue, the sector has turned to a four-pillar approach, allowing the different market segments within the industry to use the most appropriate and feasible solution available to them to address the climate challenge. These measures include market-based measures, technology improvement, infrastructure and operations improvement, and sustainable aviation fuels (SAF).
Through research conducted with ERA member ZeroAvia,a section of the report seeks to investigate the viability ofdecarbonisation technologies that target the propulsionsystems of existing aircraft size categories. Until recently,SAF and efficiency improvements were the only supply sideemission reduction levers viewed as realistic by the industry. The situation has evolved rapidly, however.The electric transport revolution that is burgeoningin road vehicles has now swept over to aviation. Improvedpower density of components, as well as improved energydensity of energy storage mechanisms, have turned electrified aircraft from a utopian vision into a reality, withelectric-powered planes taking to the skies.
Just as there are diverging technological approaches tothe development of more sustainable jet fuel, there aredifferent solutions to electrify, including hybrid electric (typically combining a conventional gas turbinewith an electric system), battery-electric and hydrogen-electric. The report particularly looks at the most cost-efficient option for the regional sector by focusing on three different aircraft types: less than 20-seat turboprops, 50-80 seat turboprops and 100-120 seat small narrow-body jets.
Based on a survey carried out among ERA airline and manufacturer members, electrification of 100-seat aircraft is not expected to be introduced before 2035 and for 50-80 seats by 2030, but for 20-seat aircraft perhaps as early as 2025. Turboprop aircraft with less than 20 seats are therefore clearly the first expected to be electrified, with several prototypes already in the air.
Given the nature of regional aviation – characterised by short-haul flights – there is a significant opportunity for ERA airline members to decarbonise with new technology, and electric or zero-emissions aircraft have potential for lower costs. Our report emphasises that the regional sector lends itself to new, clean technologies and should therefore be the forerunner for testing and selecting the right technology needed to decarbonise the industry as a whole.
Though this is promising, it can’t be overlooked that electric-powered aircraft providing more than 100 seats in the small narrow body jet segment are not expected to be commercially available before 2035 (or ever be feasible in the case of battery-electric). Therefore, the only way to reduce emissions from the propulsion system within that time frame is the use of SAF.
As a result, the study shows the potential of electric flight for thin-haul regional segments, but it confirms that bio-based fuels will form the most near-term opportunity and the only option for larger aircraft and transatlantic flights. Continued support for their deployment will remain essential for regional airlines on a case-by-case basis.
According to Eurocontrol data, ERA airline members accounted for 13.3 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2emissions in 2019, representing only 7.76% of aviation emissions in the EU and 1.43% of the EU’s total transport emissions. Nevertheless, between 2012 and 2017, ERA airline members’ CO2 emissions saw a growth of 17.1%, an increase of 1.9 MtCO2, and a further 4.3% between 2017 and 2019, from 12.7 MtCO2 in 2017 to 13.3MtCO2 in 2019. This recent growth has been a result of the total distance flown increasing by 15.4 million km (+1.41%) in just one year.
In September 2019, ERA circulated a survey among its airline members in order to better understand their environmental footprint and their commitments to a cleaner sector. Out of the members that responded, 27% already offer carbon offsetting programmes to their passengers; 9% have operated with sustainable aviation fuel; and with one respondent using 0.8% of SAF in the fuel blend. Eighty-one per cent of the airlines have improved their fleet’s fuel efficiency, with the majority of the airlines having improved it by 3-5% from 2015.
Beyond this, ERA airline members have been taking various actions to improve their environmental performance, including aircraft weight reduction; fleet modernisation; the use of turboprop; sustainable onboard products; waste management; reduction of plastic onboard; introduction of biofuel; flight operations improvements; electronic flight bag operations; making flight decks paperless; background process optimisation; ecoflight procedures; implementation of fuel management software; improved tankering; shortening routes; and the optimisation of flights. As well as this, some carriers are already planning the introduction of electric engines.
When it comes to the next five years, ERA found that most airlines are looking to renew their fleet with more efficient aircraft, with around 45% having an environmental strategy for the long term beyond the next five years. However, 81% said they were facing challenges in order to reduce emissions due to a lack of government support, the high investment requirement of better technology, the high cost of SAF and its availability, poor airspace design and, finally, public scepticism.
With 18% of respondents confirming the flight shaming movement had already affected them – either by experiencing a reduction of demand or by receiving questions regarding their operational effects – the need for these green initiatives has never been more important as many consumers begin to call for change. As the study shows though, despite the challenges, the call is indeed being heard and many of our members are answering it with innovative and effective methods that will help shape the future of aviation.
This article also appears in the May/June edition of ERA’s Regional International. ERA is the trade association representing more than 60 European airlines and 150 associate members, including manufacturers, airports, suppliers and aviation service providers.
Views expressed in Commentary op-ed articles do not necessarily represent those of GreenAir Online.