Greener Aviation Blues

If one is interested in making aviation a whole lot greener, this is a depressing time. The two largest aircraft makers, Boeing and Airbus are signaling huge conservatism when it comes to replacement for the standard jet that most of us travel on for flights within Europe or the USA (the boring old ‘narrow bodies’ : the Boeing 737 or the Airbus A320).

A key New York based analyst has suggested Boeing will not yet commit to a new replacement for the old 737. See:
http://www.flightglobal.com/articles/2011/04/12/355481/analyst-thinks-boeing-will-back-away-from-all-new-737.html

Airbus are offering their ‘A320neo’, which is a nice way of flogging an old horse. You can see Airbus salesman-in-chief, legendary John Leahy making his case for the  re-engined ‘solution’: http://www.flightglobal.com/articles/2011/04/06/355274/video-no-viable-all-new-single-aisle-before-2030-leahy.html

The only new thing will be fancy new Pratt & Whitney turbofans (LEAP X), or some other advanced turbofan, that are claimed to deliver 15% greater efficiencies.

Both designs are rather long in the tooth and their current engines would require a major step-up in efficiency, especially given projections for continued growth in passenger numbers. There had been speculation a few years back that we would see radically new ‘narrow body’ replacements, that might explore different aerodynamic designs and above all much more efficient engines that release less CO2.

Airlines like ‘Easyjet’ issued gushing press releases that feature futuristic designs with ‘open rotor’ engines. [see http://www.easyjet.com/en/news/easyjet_ecojet.html ]
…which were basically fancy propellor type engines at the back of the aircraft. Such designs were supposed to offer 25%+plus greater efficiencies.

Well guess what?

The airlines don’t want them. And the aircraft manufacturers don’t want to take a risk building them. Instead we’re going get modified existing jets-with better turbofan engines. These promise 15-20% greater efficiency. That sounds very sensible now-after all 15% does not  seem that far away from 25%. But oil has remained stubbornly above $100 a barrel, and just three years ago it was the same story in summer 2008…..maybe it is time the airlines and aircraft manufacturers realized that high oil prices could well be a structural feature in the future? If so, a much greater level of efficiency in fuel and emissions would seem like the surer bet.

What is going on here is a classic case of industry being timid. They are going to ‘sweat’ the maximum from their assets of old  1960-70s designed aircraft. There is no way we will see any major leap forward in environmental performance until the the 2030s, that is unless the airlines and the manufacturers are forced to do so. Bizarrely the EU insists that airlines (and passengers) have to pay for CO2 emission, but the actual manufacturers of aircraft get an easy ride compared with say the European car industry (which in comparison is taking a massive risk with a new generation of electric/hybrid cars). Where is the equivalent sea-change in aviation?

Perhaps, the Chinese, Brazilians, Russian and Indians will spot an opportunity if western firms are simply too technologically timid.

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2 thoughts on “Greener Aviation Blues”

  1. Surely the EU bringing aviation under the Carbon tax umbrella (which don’t forget was a mother of a battle to get agreed in the first place) does put pressure on manufacturers indirectly. Buying fuel and carbon inefficient aircraft models will absoltely cut into airlines profits providing clear incentives to manufacturers to get first mover advantage on new technology.

    1. Hi Brian, great to hear from you as ever.
      Yeah, there is some very weak indirect signal passed on to the aircraft manufacturers from the ETS, BUT my point was its very indirect and weak. Industry does not respond to weak amber signals…..they will not take major technical and financial risks without quite a bit of state money and of course being told to do something. Very old fashioned thinking but doesn’t mean its wrong.

      I consider that the whole ETS thing is more or less a joke. Admittedly, with oil the way it is, for some airlines it has cut into them, but the biggest bugbear have been the administrative costs of the ETS scheme. The most it does is tell an airline to cut some routes, and get rid of older model aircraft. It doesn’t convince any airline that they urgently need to talk to Airbus or Boeing about something very new and risky. The entire global aviation industry has become one of the most conservative ones, if you compare it to how European car makers are taking massive gambles with electrics and hybrids. In fact many of the aircraft makers are just looking to China and the Middle east for all their serious growth-and the environment just doesn’t feature there.

      Didn’t know you were interested in this area?

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