February 23, 2023

In this week’s episode of our ‘Sustainability in the Air’ podcast, SimpliFlying CEO Shashank Nigam spoke to Boeing’s Vice President of Environmental Sustainability, Sheila Remes, who shared how the airframer is collaborating with industry stakeholders to move aviation towards its 2050 net zero goal.

You can listen and subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Podcast Addict and Google podcasts.

Here’s a deep dive into the episode:

SUGAR, yes please

In January 2023, NASA and Boeing announced that they will work together on the Sustainable Flight Demonstrator project to build, test and fly an emission-reducing single-aisle aircraft. Boeing will build and test a full-sized airliner based on its transonic truss-braced wing (TTBW) concept, using long, thin, strut-braced wings to add lift, reduce drag, and burn 30% less fuel. The first test flight is expected around 2028.

Remes mentions that Boeing has been exploring various concepts with NASA for over a decade now. The latest announcement is part of what is known as the “Subsonic Ultra Green Aircraft Research” (SUGAR) concept that was set in motion many years ago.

“In 2008, NASA asked the industry and academia to explore and develop these different advanced concepts that can meet the anticipated commercial air transportation needs. So that’s where that design concept has come out of. We’ll continue to work with NASA on what that might turn out to be”, she says.

The partnership, supported by the Funded Space Act Agreement, will rely on technical expertise and facilities and $425 million from NASA over seven years. Meanwhile, Boeing and its partners will contribute the remaining $725 million and the technical plan.

ecoDemonstrator: From the lab to the skies

Apart from their partnership with NASA, Boeing also has its own ecoDemonstrator programme that tests promising technologies in an operational environment. Overall, the programme’s goals are to test technologies that enhance safety, improve efficiency and minimise the environmental footprint.

“The benefit of having a flying testbed”, says Remes, “is that we can take those technologies out of the labs, and really test them in the real world.” Over the 10 years of the programme, around 230 different technologies have been tested, and about a third of them have been validated and made their way back into Boeing’s products and services.

Remes shares some examples of technologies on airplanes today that have gone through the ecoDemonstrator programme. The most recognisable, of course, would be the winglets on the MAX aircraft that enabled a significant improvement on fuel burn.

Remes says they’ve also done a lot of work with the Boeing Global Services teams. For example, in iPad apps that allow pilots to have real time weather, as well as other information that helps improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions while they’re flying. Or custom flight path approaches that reduce community noise.

Till now, nine airplanes have served as flying test beds for the programme since it began in 2012. The latest ecoDemonstrator is a Boeing-owned 777-200ER that will test about 30 projects.

Net zero operations

In 2020 and 2021, Boeing committed to attaining net zero across manufacturing and worksites, reducing scope 1 and scope 2 emissions. Remes explains that this was possible through a back to basics three-pronged approach:

  1. Conservation efforts: Since 2018, Boeing employees have been involved in a friendly conservation  competition called ‘Battle of the Buildings’. The program aims to reduce and improve equipment and processes in everyday operations, and bring about cultural and mindset transformation. Over 230,000 actions were undertaken last year, some of which include simple efforts like recycling materials, picking up foreign object debris and turning off lights.
  2. Purchasing renewable electricity: By January 2022, nearly 20% energy use in Boeing factories was powered through renewable electricity procured via solar, wind and hydropower facilities. Additional multi-state agreements are also underway to purchase carbon neutral power for Boeing sites in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
  3. Purchasing offsets: Against the remaining emissions, Boeing purchases offsets that meet rigorous requirements set by Verified Carbon Standard (VCS), American Carbon Registry or Gold Standard. They support projects that offer co-benefits or the added benefits that may result from these carbon mitigation efforts. Boeing adheres to the CORSIA norms for offsets while also introducing further stringency, explains Remes. Examples of some of the projects include Indigenous Reservation of the Mataven Forest, Liangdu Afforestation Project in China and Winston Creek Forest Carbon Project.

Our take

Decarbonising aviation is a complex issue that requires all industry stakeholders to work together. Since aviation remains, more or less, as good as its tools, aircraft manufacturers bear a huge responsibility in moving the industry towards net zero emissions, especially as we rely on fleet renewal in the short-term.

Boeing has made significant headway in sustainable innovations and helping the industry lay out a feasible net zero roadmap. Its ecoDemonstrator, Cascade data modelling tool, net zero operations are laudable efforts in this regard.

As a strategic partner in the electric, vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicle company Wisk, Boeing is also exploring the possibilities of autonomous air taxis. That’s not all. Boeing has also partnered with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to promote SAF, hydrogen, and electrification. Moreover, it has also developed and tested linerless cryogenic fuel tanks with NASA, a technology break-through which further supports hydrogen-based fuels in aviation.

As Remes says, air travel connects the world, and has become an integral part of society. Since flying is set to increase in the years to come – and Remes believes it is a net good – actively disengaging from fossil fuels is critical. Apart from SAF, moving to alternate technologies like hydrogen and electric propulsion is essential.

Ultimately, without industry stalwarts like Boeing leading the way, the upcoming transition to green flying will be hard to effect. Smaller companies lack the wherewithal of the likes of a Boeing, and are unlikely to stay afloat on ideas and interesting innovations alone.

Luckily, Remes feels there’s much reason for optimism. “I have seen the innovation that this industry is able to bring to the table”, she says. “We’ve improved from the start of the jet age and reduced emissions by 70%. So I believe we can do this.”

Our Sustainability in the Air podcast is powered by SimpliFlying which has been helping build trust in travel for over a decade.

Season 3 is brought to you by our sustainability partners, Cirium and CarbonClick

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