Aviation: Responsible growth for a global industry

©Reuters/Gregg Newton

With aviation growing in terms of the number of planes operating and passengers taking to the skies, the industry is engaged in an important and candid dialogue—how to continue to grow responsibly, while further reducing its impact on the global ecosystem

As an industry, aviation is accustomed to addressing challenges. Every day we overcome technological barriers in our efforts to bring new innovation to our customers, while managing our business in dynamic and challenging market conditions. Coupled with record-breaking fuel costs, we now have a new challenge; reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.Why the strong emphasis on CO2? Because it is one of the longest-lasting greenhouse gases and the only Kyoto gas produced by aviation, which contributes approximately 2% to man-made emissions. To address it directly, the industry is taking aggressive steps to keep aviation emissions low, without losing sight of other issues such as local air quality or noise. In fact, recently in Geneva, industry leaders gathered to sign a declaration of commitment to action on climate change that includes identifying a pathway to carbon-neutral growth with an aspirational goal toward a carbon-free future. As an industry, we believe technology and innovation will guide us to improved performance for current and future generations of aircraft.Airline operators are stepping up and doing their part, from washing their planes between flights to requesting optimised route structures from air traffic officials as a way of attaining fuel and operating efficiencies. Several carriers have begun tracking the routes they requested versus the routes they were assigned and estimate they would have gained an additional 10% in efficiency if their initial route requests were granted. Other airlines are improving their fleet performance by retrofitting existing aircraft with new technology enhancements, or acquiring newer, more efficient aircraft, while looking to retire older, less efficient ones.At Boeing, our environmental commitment begins with research and development, and ensuring that our own environmental strategy has a clear and precise focus. As we actively address these issues, we must balance the need for improved environmental performance without disrupting the flow of people and commerce around the world.Through the introduction of progressive new aircraft such as the 787 Dreamliner and the 747-8 Intercontinental, we are poised to deliver significant reductions in noise and fuel emissions, while demonstrating to passengers that aviation is doing its part. Demonstrating commitment with innovation will help assuage the “guilt of flying” element that has cropped up in some countries.But environmental performance is not just a by-product of aircraft design; it’s a very deliberate effort that has driven us to continually improve fuel efficiency for our customers. That’s good business sense which, in an age of record fuel prices, coincidentally has environmental benefits. For each litre of fuel that isn’t burned, it means not emitting 3.2 litres of CO2.To reduce fuel burn, the 787 design uses carbon fibre, making it lighter than comparably sized aircraft. Less weight means less drag, allowing the Dreamliner to use less fuel (on a per-passenger basis) than similarly sized airplanes. This equates to an immediate and measurable reduction in CO2 emissions. The plane’s efficiency gains also mean a 60% smaller noise “footprint.” Indeed, both the 787 and 747-8 programs have taken a lifecycle approach to ensuring that the climate impact of both airplanes will be lower than the airplanes they replace. In other technology areas, Boeing is helping guide the industry towards the commercialisation of a new generation of sustainable, plant-based fuel sources that offer a lower carbon footprint and don’t compete with food and land resources. These new biofuels—or biojet—offer significant benefits when you consider a life-cycle approach. Plant-based fuel sources absorb CO2 when they are growing, meaning those fuels that are produced through sustainable growing practices have the ability to reduce the industry’s dependence on fossil fuels, while offering a 50-80% CO2 reduction over the course of their lifetime. That’s a tremendous progression for the industry and its ability to support destinations that rely on tourism, commerce and aviation contributions to its GDP.We’ve already conducted the first commercial biofuel flight to prove their applicability and have announced two more are being planned. In addition, we recently conducted the first aircraft flight powered by clean, quiet hydrogen fuel cell technology. But solutions take time, and while we’re still 5-7 years from seeing biofuel solutions become available for commercial use, with commercial fuels cell applications even further out, the technological foundation is being established today.Lastly, we are continuing to push for improvements to the global air transportation system. Even the most advanced aircraft will fall short of performance expectations if they are forced to operate in an antiquated system that results in holding patterns, missed flights and less than optimised route patterns. That’s why we recently announced jointly with Airbus, that our companies will work together to accelerate improvements to the world’s air transportation management system to eliminate unnecessary traffic congestion.This is an emotional and personal issue and we all have a role to play. People want to move freely throughout the world, without having misguided guilt placed upon them. Not until we effectively replace misinformation with facts, data and innovative technological solutions will we be able to say that we’ve effectively solved a crucial element of the climate change puzzle. As aviation takes progressive strides to do even better, Boeing will continue to do its part to be a good environmental steward by demonstrating commitment with action.©OECD Observer No 267 May-June 2008

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