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Even the aviation industry is waking up and smelling the carbon

‘Flight shame’ is spreading, and the industry knows it needs to get a low-emission antidote ready.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
5 July 2019
A futuristic-looking small plane
Eviation's Alice electric plane still on the ground at the Paris Air Show
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Matti Blume, CC BY-SA 4.0. Some rights reserved.

‘Steady as she goes’ is the mantra of global aerospace, particularly those whose business is flying civilians and commercial freight around the world. They have to plan long-term and so look out anxiously for sudden changes in public attitudes to aviation. And it looks like one such shift may be happening right now.

If there is one human activity least likely to adapt to climate breakdown and the need for radical decarbonisation you might think it is powered flight. But at last month’s International Paris Air Show the industry seemed to be waking up to that need. Writing in its leading journal, Aviation Week and Space Technology, Michael Bruno puts the mood like this:

While Greta Thunberg probably did not attend the 2019 Paris Air Show, she seemed to be everywhere. The 16-year-old Swedish student – who spurred Europeans and others to forgo flying on their summer vacations, due to carbon emissions from airliners – was not cited in formal press releases or announcements, but the ‘flight-shaming’ effect she has helped foster was not far from some attendees’ minds.

Bruno goes on to say the show may be remembered “as industry’s inflection point to a hybrid-electric and generally more environmentally friendly future”. He quotes one analyst, Richard Aboulafia of Teal Group, who comments: “This Swedish girl Greta, she seems to be spreading a gospel that’s got some traction, and you never know what becomes [of] a demographic that way.”

There are signs of a change that are more concrete than the atmosphere at Paris-Le Bourget Airport, however. A couple of months ago UBS Evidence Lab did a poll of 2,000 Germans and Americans that found around 22% of them had already reduced their air travel because of environmental concerns and 38% said they would be likely to fly in a hybrid-electric plane. Bruno quotes these figures in his column while pointing out that the proportion in the 18-to-40 age group was more than 50%.

That’s encouraging, but there are still powerful forces driving carbon emissions from aviation in the wrong direction. In the UK the debate over adding a third runway to London Heathrow continues, and several regional airports are expanding their activities, with Leeds-Bradford planning a 75% increase in passenger numbers. Across the world, especially in eastern Asia, numerous new airports are being built. Indeed, the issue of Aviation Week that includes Bruno’s piece has as its cover story Lockheed’s programme to develop a new supersonic airliner capable of trans-Pacific flights.

Even so, a fundamental shift in public attitudes could speed up the change to low-emission commercial aircraft. As of now, hybrid electric propulsion gets most traction on light aircraft and pure electric aircraft are a long way off – although a recent MIT Review assessment points out that hybrid systems can be a halfway house towards very much cleaner flying.

The change in public mood in the past six months, especially in Europe, has caught many industries by surprise and some of the more far-sighted managers are trying to adjust. Few, however, recognise the scale of the radical decarbonisation that has to come. Just as diesel and petrol engines should be seen as obsolete in the post-carbon age, there shouldn’t be any building of new airports or expansion of existing ones, and the world’s aerospace industries should be concentrating their research and development on non- and low-carbon propulsion.

That is still too radical for most people in the industry and we have a very long way to go in a short time. Even so, the effect that a young Swedish student has had, within a few weeks, on one of the world’s leading aviation exhibitions should give cause for thought and maybe a little bit of guarded optimism.

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