European aerospace giant Airbus brought together its executive team and sector leads, airline chiefs, policymakers and the media to its Toulouse headquarters in France for the Airbus Sustainability Summit, a two-day extravaganza aimed at not only demonstrating its own commitment to the green agenda, but to foster the widespread collaboration it believes is necessary to enable the aviation industry to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. During the event, Airbus revealed several sustainability-related initiatives and programmes, as well as technology investment. Involving Airbus, Air France and French air navigation service provider DSNA, a flight from Paris to Toulouse took place on the first day of the event to demonstrate the feasibility of implementing more energy efficient flights. Airbus also announced that from later this year, all new aircraft from its Mobile facility in the US will be delivered using sustainable aviation fuel.
Opening the Summit, Julie Kitcher, EVP Communications & Corporate Affairs, explained Airbus had initiated a “company-wide purpose” to pioneer sustainable aerospace at the beginning of 2020. In many ways, she said, the pandemic has enabled it to accelerate these ambitions. According to Airbus: “The overarching theme throughout the Summit was sustainability and decarbonisation; and more specifically how Airbus and the industry will come together to implement the necessary mix of solutions for a credible journey towards net zero.”
In her introduction, Kitcher stated that in the short-term – at least up to 2030 – there was a great opportunity to decarbonise by operating the latest generation airliners with more fuel-efficient engines. As only around 10% of aircraft today are flying with the newest GE, Rolls-Royce, and Pratt & Whitney powerplants, “the potential for fleet renewal is substantial,” she said.
Kitcher said there would need to be investment in “many energy pathways” as there was no one energy solution for decarbonisation and widescale investment in bio-refineries and incentivisation would be required to support the production of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). Airbus believes SAF, electrification, hybridisation, hydrogen and power-to-liquid fuels will all play their part, as will direct carbon capture technology.
The ramp-up of SAF production is viewed as critical by all sides, especially in the short-term with no alternatives available. However, while SAF received widespread support at the Summit from many, Johan Lundgren, Chief Executive of easyJet, said it was not a long-term solution for short-haul aviation, describing it as an “offset mechanism”. He is a strong advocate of zero-emission aircraft as the solution for the narrowbody airliner of the future to meet its aim of net zero emissions by 2050.
“This is an exciting time for the industry where true zero-emission flight is within reach,” said Lundgren, taking part in a panel session with Barry Biffle, CEO of US low-cost carrier Frontier, who argued SAF had become “a bandwagon”.
“Hydrogen and electric powered aircraft are already flying, with companies like Airbus committed to scaling the technology for commercial flights and aiming for entry into service in the 2030s,” said Lundgren. “So we all need to play our role in ensuring that the infrastructure is ready for these exciting new aircraft. But the industry can’t do it alone. We need governments to help the industry meet ambitious emissions reduction goals by championing financial and regulatory support for green technologies and investments in zero-emission aircraft.”
Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury stated that his timeline of 2035 to develop and bring into service a zero-emissions aircraft, possibly in the narrowbody airliner class, is realistic. He acknowledged this was a huge challenge with many risks, but had been impressed by the technological momentum created in this area and especially hydrogen. However, according to Faury, the regulatory and investment challenges could be greater than the technological ones. “I am more concerned about this than the engineering … that’s why we are engaging with governments and the energy sector,” he told delegates.
Faury recognises that producing a zero-emission aircraft is just one part of the challenge, with low-carbon fuel and ground infrastructure – let alone the regulatory environment – just as important.
Heathrow Airport CEO John Holland-Kaye told the Summit there will have to be a major technological and physical change for airports to bring in hydrogen fuel and electrical power for aviation. For example, the storage of liquid hydrogen will require four times as much space as that of kerosene fuel, he said. As airlines transition from Jet A-1 to hydrogen fuel, he added, there would have to be an entirely new hydrogen fuel distribution system at airports operating in parallel with the kerosene supply network, which would require a big investment.
Smaller, regional airports will find it difficult to invest in parallel fuel delivery systems, which will cause operational issues for airlines requiring hydrogen fuel at both ends of a route, believes Holland-Kaye. “This is why I suspect SAF will have a very significant role well into the future,” he said.
Meanwhile, following an agreement with Signature Flight Support, Airbus will be fuelling new deliveries of A220 and A320 Family aircraft to its US customers from the Airbus manufacturing facility in Mobile, Alabama, with blended SAF from no later than November. Signature in turn is working with World Energy to provide the US-sourced SAF to Airbus.
The demonstration flight between Paris and Toulouse that kicked off the Summit flew an optimised trajectory, and marked the first of a series of trials planned during 2021 and 2022 within the framework of the Single European Sky ATM Research Joint Undertaking (SESAR JU) ALBATROSS project that was launched in February. It aims to demonstrate, through a series of gate-to-gate live demonstration flights across Europe, the feasibility of implementing the most energy efficient flights in the short term by combining several R&D technical and operational innovations. These include new precision approach procedures, continuous climb and descent, more dynamic management of necessary airspace constraints, sustainable taxiing and SAF usage. Starting this month, the trials will involve around 1,000 demonstration flights and first results are expected to be made available in 2022. Partners in the project are Airbus, Air France, Austro Control, DLR, DSNA, Eurocontrol, LFV, Lufthansa, Novair, Schiphol, Smart Airport Systems, Swedavia, Swiss, Thales AVS France and Wizz Air UK.
During the Summit, updates on two Airbus wing technology projects were announced that are aimed at improving flight efficiency and reducing fuel burn and CO2 emissions. The first is an ‘extra-performing’ wing demonstrator project focused on accelerating and validating technologies that will improve and optimise wing aerodynamic and performance for any future propulsion solution and aircraft configuration. Similar to how an eagle soars, adapting the shape, span and surface of its wings and feathers, the demonstrator – a Cessna Citation VII business jet platform in representative flight conditions – allows for increased flight efficiency.
“Airbus’ extra-performing wing demonstrator is another example of our novel technology-oriented solutions to decarbonise the aviation sector,” said Sabine Klauke, Airbus Chief Technology Officer. “Airbus is continuously investigating parallel and complementary solutions such as infrastructure, flight operations and aircraft structure. With this demonstrator, we will make significant strides in active control technology through research and applied testing of various technologies inspired by biomimicry.”
The research and technology programme ‘Wing of Tomorrow’, part-funded by the UK’s Aerospace Technology Institute, has reached a key milestone with the assembly of its first full-size wing prototype, reported Airbus. It is testing the latest composite materials and new technologies in aerodynamics and wing architecture, as well as exploring how wing manufacturing and industrialisation can be improved. Bringing together more than 100 new technologies, three full-size prototype wings will be manufactured in total: one will be used to understand systems integration, a second will be structurally tested to compare against computer modelling, while a third will be assembled to test scaling up production and compare against industrial modelling.
“High-performing wing technology is one of several solutions – alongside sustainable aviation fuels and hydrogen – we can implement to contribute to aviation’s decarbonisation ambition,” said Klauke. “Wing of Tomorrow is also an example of how large-scale industry collaboration will be critical to achieving our sector’s agenda for a more sustainable future.”
Photo: Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury takes questions at the Summit