Business aviation often has an uncomfortable position in the aviation industry and not only when it comes to its environmental impact.

Private jets are regularly used as a metaphor for excess, waste, greed, mismanagement and even criminality.  The assumption due in part, to the perception that a high proportion of flights are undertaken by high net worth individuals. The fact that these aircraft are also first responders into disaster areas due to their ability to land on smaller runways or medical flights, often gets forgotten.

Unless you have been hiding in outer Mongolia, environmental responsibility, and wider sustainability are important areas of focus across the globe for governments, industries, companies and individuals.  The aviation industry is a high-profile target in this area.

Whilst it rarely makes headlines, business aviation has made significant investment and progress in sustainability and with the world’s leaders in Davos at the World Economic Forum and private jets being 2 a penny, (there will undoubtedly be the requisite flight-shaming that accompanies the forum with the global elite being criticized for spewing unnecessary emissions due to avoiding commercial flights)  highlighting the progress of the business aviation industry could help ease the mounting pressure against business-jet use as well as for the broader industry.

So, what has the industry been up to? Well let’s look

Global business aviation operations represent 0.04% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions with aviation as a whole standing at just over 2% of the world’s manmade CO2 emissions according to the IPCC.

A major milestone in the industry’s commitment to sustainability was in 2009 when the International Business Aviation Council (IBAC) and General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) announced and published the Business Aviation Commitment on Climate Change (BACCC), a programme outlining a continued effort in reducing the industry’s carbon footprint.

The BACCC identified a critical need for a globally harmonized environmental policy that ensured safe, efficient and balanced operations.

The Industry’s commitment to emissions reduction centred around three goals:

  • A 2% improvement in fuel efficiency per year from 2010 until 2020;
  • Carbon-neutral growth from 2020 onward;
  • A 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, relative to 2005.

There are some ‘sporty’ targets in there (as someone I know would put it) so how did they propose to meet them? well by adopting the same four-pillar approach that IATA advocate for commercial aviation.

IATA’s four-pillar strategy is based on the following-

  • Improved technology
  • More efficient aircraft operations
  • Infrastructure improvements
  • A single global market-based measure, to fill the remaining emissions gap

Improved Technology – using new technology in aircraft production to reduce emissions.  Very substantial improvements have been made in fuel efficiency in the last fifteen years which means as new aircraft come into service, they are replacing older, less fuel-efficient machines.

More efficient aircraft operations - saving fuel through more efficient procedures e.g. continuous descent, engine washes, improved air traffic control

Infrastructure improvements - including modernized air traffic management systems

Alternative Fuel Sources - Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). SAF is a non-fossil-based hydrocarbon fuel and not just produced from biological resources, hence why it isn’t referred to as a biofuel (Some people get very annoyed when that happens!)

So, what’s different between commercial and business aviation and how is the bad boy of aviation going to end up as the saviour you may ask.  Well here it is….

Believe it or not, business aviation has long been at the forefront of technological innovation, including in efficiency gains.

Did you know business aircraft were the first civil aircraft to:

  • use winglets
  • use advanced aerodynamics
  • have state of the art avionics
  • and to demonstrate improved fuel burn from engines

but where they have made the most progress is identifying that sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) were key to meeting their CO2 emissions plan.

Sustainable aviation fuel – essentially Jet-A with a non- fossil fuel element, blended with up to a currently certified 50% mix – meets the same ASTM standard (D1655) as current aviation fuel; it is a simple “drop-in” for aircraft, indistinguishable from the completely petroleum-based product. The only effects to aircraft performance are beneficial ones: a cleaner burn and commensurate reduction of overall CO2 emissions over the life cycle of the fuels’ manufacturing process, together with the environmental benefits in sourcing such fuels from renewable resources.

So, in 2018, the following trade bodies created the Business Aviation Coalition for Sustainable Aviation.

  • European Business Aviation Association (EBAA)
  • General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA)
  • International Business Aviation Council (IBAC)
  • National Air Transportation Association (NATA)
  • National Business Aviation Association (NBAA)

They produced ‘The Business Aviation Guide to SAF’ with valuable technical assistance provided by the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI) and the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG).  The guide focused on raising awareness and adoption of available and emerging sustainable aviation fuel options, and providing a road map for the education about, and use of, the fuels.

The initiative also included a dedicated website with resources and other information about SAF, to bridge the “knowledge gap” on the safety, availability and use of sustainable aviation fuels.

But they didn’t just put pen to paper they also put it in to practice

The Guide spurred industrywide interest in SAF, the next step in raising awareness and promoting education of its benefits came in January 2019, as IBAC joined with a coalition of industry groups to sponsor the first-ever SAF demonstration day in the United States at California’s Van Nuys Airport (VNY), which proved the fuels’ viability and safety.

The impressive demonstration of SAF’s appeal and viability at Van Nuys then paved the way toward the first European SAF demonstration day in May 2019, held at Tag Farnborough London Airport in the United Kingdom (EGLF), ahead of EBACE2019 (EBAA)

Aircraft from major manufacturers including Bombardier, Gulfstream, Cirrus, Embraer, Piaggio, Dassault and Textron Aviation, fuelled up on SAF at EGLF, as well as other airports across Europe and the US for in-bound flights to EBACE2019, demonstrating the fuels’ viability.

This display of interest in alternative fuels bolstered the unequivocal message that SAF is safe and does not impact aircraft performance but it also offers airport and community benefits.

There was a further demonstration at NBAA Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition (NBAA-BACE) in October 2019 in Las Vegas, United States.

Efforts are now underway to significantly expand availability of these fuels as interest continues to grow throughout the industry and more business aviation operators seek to adopt sustainable fuels to support an extensive variety of missions.

In addition, the hundreds of private jets expected to fly people out of Davos from the World Economic Forum will also be able to fill their tanks with SAF as it will be available at Zurich airport. (Business Aviation Coalition for Sustainable Aviation Fuel)

So, what is the impact?

SAF typically costs more than the petroleum-based alternative so the larger commercial airlines adoption has been slow due to high costs and limited supply at commercial airports.

There is a whole host of issues as to why commercial aviation is behind on the uptake.

It’s expensive and commercial airlines already have high operating cost bases.

It’s only available at limited locations and how do you manage the logistics of fuelling?  There would need to be 2 different trucks one for SAF and one for Jet A, 2 different tanks to store it and that brings a whole host of logistical issues with infrastructure at commercial airports add in the fact that you can only use SAF to offset 50% of your carbon emissions and you can see that it will be a slow burn (pardon the pun) for commercial aviation to switch to SAF.

A switch to hybrid and electric propulsion isn’t expected to be feasible until the mid-2030s, and then only for the smaller aircraft.

Business aviation has made great strides in electric prototypes.   Israeli firm Eviation has built an aircraft - called Alice – which will carry nine passengers for up to 650 miles (1,040km) at 10,000ft (3,000m) at 276mph (440km/h).

It is expected to enter service in 2022 after the company received its first orders from US regional airline Cape Air, which operates a fleet of 90 aircraft, has agreed to buy a "double-digit" number of the aircraft.

Crucially, electricity is much cheaper than conventional fuel but the prospects for electric long-haul flights are not so positive. While electrical motors, generators, power distribution and controls have advanced very rapidly, battery technology hasn't. Even assuming huge advances in battery technology, with batteries that are 30 times more efficient and "energy-dense" than they are today, it would only be possible to fly an A320 airliner for a fifth of its range with just half of its payload, says Airbus's chief technology officer Grazia Vittadini.

"Unless there is some radical, yet-to-be invented paradigm shift in energy storage, we are going to rely on hydrocarbon fuels for the foreseeable future," says Paul Eremenko, United Technologies chief technology officer.

The big problem with this is that 80% of the aviation industry's emissions come from passenger flights longer than 1,500km - a distance no electric airliner could yet fly. Yet the UK has become the first G7 country to accept the goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Regulators are also piling on the pressure. In Europe, the European Aviation Safety Agency says it will start categorizing aircraft based on their CO2 emissions, while Norway and Sweden are aiming to make short-haul flights in their airspace electric by 2040.

So logically, is the only answer is to ditch long-haul flights?

This obviously is highly unlikely given the commercial impact that would have. Rolls-Royce's Paul Stein says starkly that the world would be in a "dark place" if we stopped travelling. He argues that in a global economy "where peaceful co-existence comes about from travelling and understanding each other, if we move away from that I am very concerned it's not the direction mankind should be going in".

So, it looks like the business aviation industry will, in a short space of time become the “greener alternative” and held up as a shining example of the most sustainable option of air travel.

Isn’t it ironic (I’m sure there’s a song in there)?


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