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Sustainability Still a Priority for Aviation Industry

By Alicia Arizpe | Mon, 12/21/2020 - 09:38

While aviation has been credited with furthering connection across the globe by permitting the fast transportation of people and goods, it also has an environmental impact that could lead to trouble if overlooked. Globally, the aviation industry was responsible for only 2 percent of all human-induced CO2 emissions, releasing 915 million tons of CO2 during 2019. “Passenger air travel is producing the highest and fastest growth of individual emissions,” explains the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. Commercial aviation, explains the institute, is responsible for a total of 5 percent of the world’s climate warming problem once the warming of the aircraft and the release of other pollutants is factored. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reports that aviation emissions are mainly CO2 and water vapor, with less than 1 percent of other pollutants including nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx), carbon monoxide (CO) and other particle matter. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that “emissions from certain classes of engines used in aircraft contribute to the air pollution that causes climate change, endangering public health and welfare.”

Regulating aircraft emissions has been a priority for governments and industry bodies alike. In 2004, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) adopted three major environmental goals that have been revised and updated every three years. These goals aim to limit or reduce the number of people affected by aircraft noise, the impact of emissions on air quality and the impact of aviation greenhouse gas emissions. Airlines, airports and service providers under the umbrella of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) have pledged to contribute to the reduction of emissions, with airlines vowing to cut emissions to half of 2005 levels by 2050.

Reducing emissions has also been a priority for planemakers for years and the largest commercial aircraft developers have invested significantly in the development of more sustainable units. US giant Boeing states that “each newly developed Boeing product is typically 15 to 25 percent more efficient than the airplanes it replaces.” French planemaker Airbus has also invested in numerous sustainable alternatives and aims to develop the world’s first “zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035.”

This push towards sustainability and lower fuel consumption led both OEMs to develop more efficient versions of previously best-selling aircraft. Airbus, for example, introduced the A320neo (new engine option) as a more fuel-efficient, sustainable option to the A320ceo (current engine option). “New-generation engines, Sharklet wing-tip devices and the numerous cabin innovations of the A320neo result in 15 percent fuel-cost savings per seat compared to previous-generation aircraft,” said Rafael Alonso, President of Airbus Latin America and the Caribbean at Airbus.

Boeing made a similar bet with the 737 Max, a newer version of the 737 that included more efficient engines, splint-tip winglets and other modifications to offer better fuel efficiency. Thanks to its numerous advantages, the controversial airplane was once Boeing’s best-selling aircraft until the two fatal crashes led it to be grounded for 20 months, causing numerous cancellations. The aircraft was cleared to fly again by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last month, which may lead other countries to lift the ban, reported MBN.

Some Mexican airlines have set their sights on more fuel-efficient aircraft. “Interjet, Viva Aerobus and Volaris have all opted for the A320neo, the newest member of the A320 family, allowing them to operate efficient, latest-generation aircraft while improving their environmental footprint,” said Alonso. Viva Aerobus, for example, claims to have the lowest CO2 emissions per passenger in the country thanks, in part, to its aircraft.

A key driver behind the development of more sustainable, fuel-efficient aircraft was the high cost of jet fuel, which could represent up to 23.7 percent of an airline’s operating expenses pre-pandemic, according to IATA. “Prior to the pandemic, Lufthansa was strongly investing in renewing its fleet to offer passengers newer airplanes, which are quieter, more comfortable and better for the environment thanks to their lower noise levels and reduced CO2 emissions, partly the result of more efficient use of jet fuel,” said Felipe Bonifatti, Senior Director and Head of Sales Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean at Lufthansa, to MBN. The price of jet fuel has been a concern in the sector for years, as it had risen steadily since the 2000s. Jet fuel is among the higher valued light products of crude oil refinery, so the price of the former closely correlates with that of the latter, according to McKinsey.

Oil prices have plunged in recent years only to be hit again by the COVID-19 pandemic. In April 2020, oil prices fell into negative territory for the first time in history, reported MBN, with analysts suggesting that prices are unlikely to ever reach pre-pandemic levels again. Jet fuel prices are also down and are no longer among an airline’s major concerns, as they now only represent 5 percent of its operating expenses, says IATA. After the pandemic, cash-strapped airlines might find replacing their fleet for more modern, fuel-efficient aircraft to be less of a priority as the cost of jet fuel will be lower and liquidity is scarce. Boeing, MBN reported, has been plagued by cancellations which started after the two 737 Max crashes but worsened as the COVID-19 crisis progressed. So far, Boeing has seen 436 cancellations of the 737 Max.

However, some airlines are choosing, or being required, to keep their sustainability commitments. “As part of the conditions stipulated by the Dutch government to grant financial aid, KLM needs to cut CO2 emissions per passenger per kilometer by 50 percent by 2030,” said Maud Oostenbrink, Commercial Director Mexico Air France-KLM & Vice-President Advisory at Board Holland House Mexico, to MBN. “The French government has established similar conditions for Air France for the reduction of CO2 emissions per passenger per kilometer. For domestic flights, the CO2 reduction target is more vigorous since it needs to be cut by 50 percent by the end of 2024.”

Airlines are also using this time to retire older, less fuel-efficient aircraft. British Airways, for example, retired the “queen of the skies,” the Boeing 747 jumbo jet, pointing to the sharp reduction in passenger traffic caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, as stated in a previous MBN article. The crisis might also be the end of the road for the A380, the largest commercial aircraft in the world, as Airbus is stopping production of the iconic aircraft.

Beyond the use of modern aircraft, airlines are implementing other sustainability strategies. For example, last month Viva Aerobus introduced a commitment to “make Viva the greenest airline in Mexico” under the program The Future is Green. “We will promote any practice that optimizes our operations for the benefit of the environment and inspires our passengers and collaborators to make a difference,” said Juan Carlos Zuazua, CEO of Viva Aerobus.

Volaris also made headlines last month when it announced its selection as an index component of the Dow Jones Sustainability (DJSI) MILA Pacific Alliance Index. "We congratulate Volaris for being included in the DJSI. A DJSI distinction is a reflection of being a sustainability leader in your industry,” said Manjit Jus, Global Head of ESG Research and Data at S&P Global, according to a Volaris press release.

Alicia Arizpe Alicia Arizpe Senior Writer