Although 3% seems minor in comparison, much of the GHG emissions by air travel occur at high altitudes and are therefore unable to be absorbed by trees and plants, nature's carbon "scrubbers". The normalized figure for these air travel emissions may contribute as much as 9% of the greenhouse effect.
According to Frost & Sullivan's Asia Pacific Consultant of Aerospace & Defense Practice Kunal Sinha, apart from GHG, airlines today face a dramatically changing business landscape, largely because of volatile jet fuel prices. Fuel expenses today constitute more than one third of the airlines' operating costs.
"Airlines must reduce their consumption of oil-based jet fuel by investing in more fuel-efficient technologies, nurturing the growth of alternative energies, and, more immediately, optimizing their business models. Doing so will not only save the industry billions of dollars but will also help airlines achieve a sustainable, lower emissions future," he says.
While regulatory push is relatively slow with the lack of consensus among governments all over the world, airline executives have shown a genuine desire to make air travel greener.
"Through a combination of operational and strategic moves, airline executives have reduced fuel usage, cutting both cost and emissions at the same time. Some of the immediately deployable operational steps taken include single-engine taxiing, shutting down of engines during delays and redistribution of belly cargo; all these measures help burn less fuel," says Kunal.
He continues, "Today the industry is working to improve the efficiency of not only aircrafts through new engine designs, alternative fuels and weight gains, but also of Air Traffic Management (ATM) systems. Investing heavily in R&D, the industry has been developing innovative and more efficient green ATM solutions for its customers."
Solutions implemented within the ATM system to further increase efficiency include Flex Routes where flight paths are recalculated according to weather; and the Continuous Descent Approach (CDA) where aircraft fly at near-idle power from the top of descent to touch down. CDA alone saves 10% of fuel in the final phase of flight.
Other relatively easy-to-implement technologies involve engine efficiency and reduced aircraft weight and drag that can yield large fuel savings; some of those technologies are already being widely adopted.
"The use of lightweight, high-strength composite materials in aircraft have long been championed by the OEM players like Boeing and Airbus. We believe there are significant opportunities to aggressively incorporate new composite technologies to minimize weight," says Kunal.
He continues, "The fuel efficiency of the aircraft has improved by 70% and noise levels have been reduced by 75% in the last 40 years. The next-generation aircraft such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus 350 are expected to increase efficiency by a further 20%."
Still, a new generation of technology is required in order to pursue strategic options to reduce emissions. While green aviation encompasses a slew of initiatives to be taken by the entire industry to ensure sustainable development, regulations from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and other agencies also provide major impetus to Green Initiatives by industry participants.
"Even though air traffic is expected to grow at 5.2%, IATA envisions a carbon-neutral growth. The use of technology, operational efficiencies, better infrastructure, and economic instrument are enabling factors to ensure carbon neutral growth," says Kunal.
He adds, "Some initiatives are capital-intensive and need a lot of investment in R&D. Active support from government and regulatory authorities would help the participants to face the challenges."
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