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It’s not easy being green

by Nancy Jackson BALPA Communications Officer

Fans of the muppets will know well Kermit’s ballad on the difficulties of being green. And its tile, “It’s not easy being green” sums up the challenge the aviation industry faces worldwide as it strives towards becoming more sustainable. 

Last month alone the green credentials of aviation were in the spotlight as Heathrow Airport expansion hit the headlines once more. At the same time in Norway, an electric plane took to the skies as part of the country’s plans to combat climate change. In fact everyone involved in the air travel industry around the world seems to have their thinking cap on. Sustainability is a global issue and consideration is being given to how the industry can continue to grow to meet demand and at the same time reduce its environmental impact.

Cutting emissions on the scale required to meet carbon targets means we either need to change how, or how much, we fly. With demand for air travel growing, cutting the number of flights doesn’t look like the popular option. It’s something that’s being examined across the board, with everyone from pilots to airlines, regulators and the Government all looking at how aviation can go green. 

So, what are the main ways aviation is striving to meet the challenge? 

1.     A more efficient flying machine. 

Aircraft design has come along way in recent years. As I've already mentioned, just this week headlines were made as Norway’s transport minister tried out the latest technology in the form of an electric plane.
It is advances like this, improved engines, enhanced aerodynamics, and using lighter materials, that  meann modern day aircraft can fly more efficiently, burning less fuel and producing less CO2. The incentive for these changes is not just environmental, it also makes economic sense. For example, greater fuel efficiency cuts overheads and brings greater profits, and that’s a huge incentive for the industry.

At the same time new 'carbon neutral' biofuels are being developed as an alternative to Kerosene. Virgin Atlantic scored the 'industry first' in 2008, flying a 747 to Amsterdam with one of its engines using a 20% biofuel mix made from coconut oil and babassu nuts. 

And the race is on to develop a viable aircraft that uses renewable energy sources such as solar panels. It wasn’t without problem, but the first round-the-world solar powered flight has already been completed with the Solar Impulse aircraft touching down in Abu Dhabi almost two years ago

These emerging technologies are in their infancy but have the potential to help improve the sustainability of aviation. 

2.    Best operational practice

It’s not just aircraft designers, scientists and inventors that can help aviation go green. A new way of flying the aircraft and organising flights in the air and on the ground can make a difference too. For example, using enhanced weather-sensing technology and optimal altitudes and speeds can cut down on fuel use and CO2 output without modifying a plane’s design.

Making sure flight paths are optimised, both vertically and laterally, and setting out smarter, more integrated air traffic control systems can have a huge impact on efficiency. The idea is that ensuring that aircraft don’t have to follow fuel-sapping zig-zag routes designed to fit in with all the various national systems of the countries below, helps reduce flying time and therefore save fuel. 

Combining pre-set flight plans with real-time updates also allows aircraft to better avoid storms and take advantage of favourable winds. Ensuring tthat he amount of time aircraft spend in holding patterns is kept to a minimum can also reduce fuel burn. 

The way pilots and air traffic controllers manage take offs, departures and approaches is also already being looked at as a way of helping reduce the impact of aviation on the environment. Since engines are designed to function optimally at higher altitudes, the process of levelling off multiple times during departure and arrival is not only inefficient from a fuel usage point of view but it also adds to the noise an aircraft produces. That’s why pilots and air traffic controllers have been working to ensure continuous climbs and descents are used wherever possible. The benefit is better fuel efficiency and reduced noise.  

3.    Making ground ops and airports go green too

And it is not just in the air where the aviation industry is working on going green. With improved airport design and ground-control operations, airports are also working to reduce CO2 emissions. This means making sure terminals are built with efficiency in mind. Architects are considering eco-friendly options in the design of terminal buildings and looking at ways Renewable energies can be used as power supplies where possible. Many airports are looking at switching to electric vehicles to reduce CO2 emissions too. 

At the same time making sure aircraft taxi times are kept short and ensuring engines and auxiliary power units are switched off promptly at the gate area also helps to save fuel. 

These are just some of the ways aviation is tackling the environmental challenge head on. There is a long way to go but with time and effort pilots, airlines, airports regulators and the government hope to find ways to meet the demand for air travel and at the same time lessen the impact of aviation on the environment.