Jun 23, 2022 • 23M

Will the aviation industry ever achieve net-zero?

We revisit the first season of our podcast and string together advice and insights from airline and tech CEOs.

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Appears in this episode

Ayushi Badola
Every week, Shashank Nigam, the CEO of SimpliFlying, talks to airline, airport, travel and technology executives to help make sense of the many paths to net zero, for an industry that is one of the hardest to decarbonize. Whether you're a frequent flier, an airline executive or just love travelling, if you care about sustainable global travel, then welcome aboard.
Episode details

Sustainability in the Air is the world’s first podcast dedicated to sustainable aviation. Through in depth conversations with top aviation leaders, we break through the clutter and provide a clear roadmap for a net-zero future.

The idea of sustainable aviation sounds bizarre if not oxymoronic. With nearly 2.1% of all human-induced CO2 emissions produced by aviation, the growth of air travel raises pressing concerns about sustainability. Consumers are conscious of the impact of aviation on the Earth and have become wary of air travel. The adoption of the 2050-net zero resolution by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) aligned the global air transport industry’s goals towards reducing carbon emissions through collective action.

When we launched the Sustainability in the Air podcast on Earth Day 2022, we set out to explore the intricacies of the sustainability challenge. The looming threat of climate change demands innovative solutions that can only be arrived at through careful research, analysis and debate. We can hope to build a stable, sustainable future only with a realistic grasp of the present.

In each of the nine episodes of Season One, we looked at different aspects of aviation through conversations with airline and tech CEOs and research-based environmental nonprofits. Each episode introduced a new challenge impacting aviation and how the industry is coming together to solve it.

We learnt about sustainable aviation fuel, carbon offsetting, using hydrogen as an aviation fuel, electric airplanes and the role of technology, governance and collective action in decarbonising air travel.

This is only the beginning. Through our podcast, we hope to start and lead conversations about the future of aviation in the right direction. We hope to put together a scaffold upon which a sustainable future can be built.

You can listen and subscribe to our podcast on all major podcast platforms or read the Season 1 recap below.

If you’ve not heard the episodes yet, you can directly jump to your topic of interest by referring to these links:

  1. Episode 1: Tony Douglas, CEO of Etihad Airways discusses Etihad’s proactive efforts to attain the 2050 net-zero goals.

  2. Episode 2: CarbonClick CEO Dave Rouse and COO Michelle Noordermeer share how radical transparency and building trust is vital for airlines to implement carbon offsetting programs.

  3. Episode 3: Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines explains how United is the carrier to look up to when it comes to sustainability strategy and investments.

  4. Episode 4: Universal Hydrogen co-founder, John-Paul Clarke shares how Hydrogen can help airlines reach their net-zero goals.

  5. Episode 5: JetBlue Technology Ventures (JTV) President Amy Burr speaks about how JetBlue’s technology investments are helping the aviation industry move towards sustainability.

  6. Episode 6: Dr. Patrick Gruber, CEO of sustainable aviation fuel company Gevo, talks about why sustainable aviation fuels are the future of the industry.

  7. Episode 7: Harbour Air Seaplanes CEO, Greg McDougall, shares how Harbour Air is paving the way for sustainable aviation through their innovative electric aircraft technology.

  8. Episode 8: Graham Webb, Pratt and Whitney’s Chief Sustainability Officer, discusses the company’s sustainability strategy and shares how airplane engines can move the industry towards net-zero.

  9. Episode 9: ICCT Program Director, Dan Rutherford dives deep into the future of sustainable aviation and the trajectory airlines and governments need to follow to get to net-zero emissions.

1. How Etihad achieved 72% emissions reduction for their sustainable flight

In the inaugural episode of Season 1, we spoke to Tony Douglas, CEO of Etihad Airways, who held forth on a number of issues related to sustainability while putting the much talked-about EY20 sustainable flight at the centre of the discussion.

In October 2021, Etihad ran a test flight (EY20) from London Heathrow to Abu Dhabi with 72% reduced carbon emissions (compared to an equivalent 2019 flight). Etihad’s test flight was a culmination of two years’ proactive efforts towards sustainability. Douglas points out 4 factors that helped the sizeable emission reduction:

  • Better aircraft: the equivalent 2019 flight employed an A380 – a much heavier, less efficient aircraft with older generation avionics.

  • Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF): The test flight operated with 38% SAF which Douglas states was one the biggest contributors to the 72% reduction. (It’s worth noting, however, that although it is widely touted as a game-changer for aviation, SAF isn’t a currently viable option for airlines.)

  • Flight plans: Etihad worked closely with Eurocontrol and UAE’s Air Traffic Control (ATC) to map out a direct route plan with continuous descent. This cut down the flight time by 40 minutes, reducing CO2 emissions by 6 tonnes!

  • Condensation trails: Etihad collaborated with SATAVIA to reduce the picturesque but carbon-laden condensation trails. They used barometric pressure, air temperature and weather patterns to make subtle tweaks to the flight plans to minimise condensation trails.

However, Douglas explains that of these four factors, two are not practically applicable anytime soon: SAF and direct route mapping. SAF is currently 3-5 times more expensive than jet fuel and current airport infrastructure doesn’t support direct deployment to aircraft. To make it viable, demand would have to significantly increase in order to bring down prices. Douglas also explains that the current flight routes are outdated “Roman roads in the sky” that are no longer efficient and need to be redesigned to keep up with the times.

Listen to the full episode here to learn more.

2. How CarbonClick is doing better Carbon Offsets

In Episode 2, we spoke to CarbonClick CEO Dave Rouse and COO Michelle Noordermeer who shared how radical transparency and building trust is vital for airlines to implement carbon offsetting programs.

For example, CarbonClick has identified three key reasons for the low take-up rate of carbon offsetting programmes.

  • Often, offsetting programs are not integrated into the booking flow – this severely affects the take-up.

  • Offsetting projects are not properly explained and/or do not resonate with people.

  • People don’t always trust airlines and are sceptical about the outcomes of the projects.

Using this diagnosis, CarbonClick has been able to help airlines build brand loyalty and increase the repurchase rates of the offsets.

CarbonClick emphasises the quality of the offsetting projects, taking into account the future benefits, impacts and the extent to which the impact of flying can be neutralised. “We’re doing what we can to try and raise the bar and bring some consistency and awareness to the types of offsets”, states Rouse.

Rouse and Noordermeer assert that voluntary offsets allow airlines to continue to have competitive prices. However, since many customers treat offsets as donations, it is important to promote projects that tug at their heartstrings.

Customers need to be convinced about the efficacy, long-term impacts, social benefits and integrity of the offsets they are putting their money into.

Listen to the full episode here to learn more.

3. Why Carbon Sequestration may be better than Carbon Offsets (United Airlines)

In Episode 3, we spoke to Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines who explained how United is the carrier to look up to when it comes to sustainability strategy and investments.

For example, United has largely veered away from planting trees to offset their carbon footprint since, as Kirby states, the solution cannot be scaled up to address the problem. He explains that even if every square inch of the planet was utilised to plant trees, it would not be enough.

In effect, the attempt would probably offset less than five months of the total global emissions. “What that means is when everyone is relying on carbon offsets on planting trees as their way to get to net zero, we’ve accounted for five months of mankind’s emissions and not the next 100 years, and we won’t be close”, he says.

In Kirby’s opinion, Carbon Sequestration (CS) is a more promising solution. The idea behind CS is to draw out carbon directly from the atmosphere and pump it into rocks, aiding and accelerating the natural process of carbon absorption. He hopes the technology will become more viable and scalable in the future with the right government policy and support.

“If we put a price on carbon today, if governments put a price on carbon around the world, carbon sequestration would grow on its own. It’s not economical today, but neither were wind and solar 20 years ago. But today, it’s cheaper to produce a megawatt of electricity with wind or solar, because there was government support [and] government credits to build and grow the industry”, he explains.

Listen to the full episode here to learn more.

4. How Hydrogen may become a feasible alternative fuel (Universal Hydrogen)

In Episode 4, we spoke to Universal Hydrogen co-founder, John-Paul Clarke, who shared how Hydrogen can help airlines reach their net-zero goals.

However, challenges remain. For example, Universal’s Hydrogen’s technology uses motors and fuel cells due to their low maintenance costs. Hydrogen and Oxygen react in the fuel cell to produce electricity and water. This electricity powers the motor.

Adopting this new system would require certain changes in the aircraft engines. The most significant change, Clarke points out, would be in the engine combustor since hydrogen and jet fuels have different flame speeds and burn properties. If done right, the rest of the components – compressors and turbines, would require minute tweaking.

In Clarke’s opinion, the solution to the sustainability challenge is a combination of SAF and hydrogen technology. For short-haul flights and at the regional turboprop level, hydrogen is the ideal solution but for longer distances SAF is more suited. Clarke also believes that hydrogen will likely be a more competitive and affordable technology than SAF in the long term.

Listen to the full episode here to learn more.

5. Why sustainability must be seen as a long-haul game (JetBlue Ventures)

In Episode 5, we spoke to JetBlue Technology Ventures (JTV) President Amy Burr who shared how JetBlue’s technology investments are helping the aviation industry move towards sustainability.

Serving as the periscope to the future of aviation technologies, JTV helps JetBlue attain their pledged goal of achieving carbon-neutrality by 2040 – 10 years before the set industry target. This, Burr explains, is achievable by investing in both long-term and short-term solutions.

In Burr’s opinion, Carbon Offsetting is a short-term solution that is bound to become unviable soon. Long-term solutions to the sustainability challenge involve investing in next-generation technologies. JTV’s long-term strategy involves four main technological solutions:

  • Alternative propulsion systems that use Hydrogen to power the aircraft.

  • Electric Propulsion systems & Electric Hybrid Aviation Aircraft for small aircraft operators at a regional level.

  • Direct Air Capture to pull carbon from the air and use it to make fuel.

  • Bio Sustainable Aviation Fuel that uses alternative feedstock.

By early investments in these technologies, JTV helps these startups grow and also plays a vital role in steering these technologies in the direction of sustainability.

Listen to the full episode here to learn more.

6. How Gevo is showing the way forward for Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)

In Episode 6, we spoke to Dr. Patrick Gruber, CEO of sustainable aviation fuel company Gevo, who explained why sustainable aviation fuels are the future of the industry.

Alternatives to jet fuel, Gruber explains, need to be carbon-reducing, “drop-in” fuels. Drop-in fuels are the functional equivalent of jet fuels and can be used without altering the existing infrastructure. Manufacturing these fuels requires a significant amount of energy. Gevo ensures that these energy sources are renewable, thereby avoiding a massive chunk of carbon emissions from grid electricity. They employ a systems approach to capture carbon at every step of the production process.

Gevo primarily uses sustainably sourced carbohydrates like residual cornstarch as the feedstock. The effect of biofuels on food security has always raised several concerns. It is believed that the increasing biofuel demand results in reduced food supply and high prices, invariably hurting the poor and marginalised. Gruber dismisses these concerns. He points out that Gevo uses carbohydrates which currently suffer from an oversupply. Furthermore, the carbohydrates are sourced from corn, only 1% of which is currently used for human consumption in the US.

In Gruber’s opinion, building capacity for SAF production is not a constraint. It’s the limited feedstocks, financing and deployment of assets. He states that the SAF is still at an infancy stage where its demand needs to be built.

Of course, not everyone agrees with Dr Gruber about the merits of SAF. Listen to Episode 9 with Dan Rutherford of the ICCT to hear a strong counter-argument conveying the real challenges of making SAF feasible and practical.

Listen to the full episode here to learn more.

7. Why Harbour Air’s Electric Beaver may set the direction for the future

In Episode 7, we spoke to Harbour Air Seaplanes CEO, Greg McDougall, who shared how Harbour Air is paving the way for sustainable aviation through their innovative electric aircraft technology.

McDougall has been a long-time proponent of the idea of electrifying aviation. Harbour Air’s opportune collaboration with MagniX and H55 is pushing that idea towards reality.

Back in 2019, Habour Air partnered with MagniX to develop the electric Beaver (eBeaver) by retrofitting their de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver with MagniX’s electric propulsion technology. The partnership, which McDougall calls the marrying of “laptops and wrench twisters” resulted in the first fully-electric flight within just 9 months!

To take this a step further, they have teamed up with H55 to develop high-density modular battery technology for the eBeaver. The three partners are also working with Transport Canada to certify the eBeaver commuter airplane through a supplemental-type certificate program.

Recently, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) partnered with MagniX to learn from Harbour Air’s eBeaver model. With this learning, NASA aims to introduce electric propulsion technology in the US aviation fleet by 2035.

Listen to the full episode here to learn more.

8. How engines can contribute to achieving net-zero emissions (Pratt & Whitney)

In Episode 8, we spoke to Graham Webb, Pratt and Whitney’s Chief Sustainability Officer. Webb discussed the company’s sustainability strategy and shares how airplane engines can move the industry towards net-zero.

Consider this: Engine efficiency plays a critical role in reducing CO2 emissions in the medium- and long-term. With air travel expected to grow significantly over the next two decades, it is essential for airplanes to have efficient engines. To this end, Pratt & Whitney (P&W) operates on an efficiency improvement timeline to improve their product efficiency by 1%-1.5% per year.

In 2016, P&W introduced the Geared Turbofan Engine which enabled the engine’s fan and turbo machinery to operate at peak efficiency. This improved the overall fuel efficiency by 16%-20%. According to Webb, the engine has helped save 700 million gallons of fuel, cutting 7 million metric tons of CO2 emissions to date!

Listen to the episode here.

9. Why supersonic travel may remain a pipe-dream (ICCT)

In Episode 9, we spoke to Dan Rutherford, Program Director at the International Council on Clean Transportation. He explained at length the future of sustainable aviation and the trajectory airlines and governments need to follow to get to net-zero emissions.

He also spoke about the future of supersonic airliners. For instance, recently United Airlines partnered with Boom Supersonic to build a supersonic airliner that would run on 100% SAF. But having published three papers on Supersonics, Rutherford remains rather pessimistic about their viability in future. The economics of SAF with supersonic aircraft is too costly to be feasible, he states. An overture aircraft would likely burn seven times more fuel per-seat kilometer than a subsonic aircraft in 2035. This multiplied with SAF’s estimated cost of about 3 times more than jet-A in the future raises the overall fuel cost by over 20 times!

United’s venture with Boom could setback the airline’s entire sustainability efforts and drive up emissions. It is possible, Rutherford asserts, that on the delivery of the Supersonic plane, the fuel costs would only allow it to be run on fossil jet fuel.

Listen to the full episode here to learn more.

Our Take: Season 1 in a nutshell

Sustainability issues are always fraught with strong opinions, largely because of how large corporations tend to lean towards tokenism and greenwashing instead of substantive efforts. However, hearing airline CEOs talk about sustainability with such passion was illuminating and refreshing. The desire for change is genuine and there seems to be a significant movement in the industry towards making plans for net-zero.

With new statistics about global warming adding to our anxieties each day, we tend to become impatient and wish for dramatic, radical change, forgetting that the real world is intricate. Effecting change takes time and continual effort and discussion.

So many of the innovations discussed during the first nine episodes have been possible because of smaller changes compounded together. There is merit in believing in smaller disruptions and incremental changes, especially when the idea of those bigger capitalism-subverting changes seems so abstract at the moment.

Change is possible. We may want to dream big but it’s okay to start small. In fact, starting is where change begins. Every drop matters, every effort counts as long as we’re in this together.

Sustainability, after all, is about cooperation not competition. And soon, we may realise that a new world may not be as far as we think it is.

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

This season of the podcast is brought to you by CarbonClick, leaders in managing carbon offsetting programs for top global airlines.