4 ways airlines can reduce their carbon footprint

There can be no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has left the aviation industry reeling. Airline capacity has plummeted, and only now are we starting to see the beginnings of cautious growth in air travel. However, every cloud has a silver lining, and in this case, it comes in the form of an opportunity for positive change. Government investment in aviation growth will be significant in the coming years, presenting a chance for airlines to reinvest in new, smarter solutions to the many sustainability challenges presented by air travel.

Even pre-pandemic, the aviation industry was confronted with the need to restructure and introduce significant changes. Increased global awareness of the climate crisis led to international targets for reducing carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050. Climate change is now a more recognised problem, with an increased global awareness of how urgent the situation has become. The emergence of ‘flight shaming’ has led to airlines needing to prove that they are doing all they can to reduce their carbon footprint. Global tech companies have also picked up on this wave of consciousness, with Google announcing that their Google Flights search function would now include information on flight CO2 emissions, allowing consumers to see the environmental impact of their travel choices. With increased pressure from customers, regulators, and investors to find sustainable ways to fly, there has never been a better time to embrace new methods and new technology.

Image via Google

1. Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)

Image via Honeywell

One of the most popular methods being embraced by airlines is the use of SAF, a fuel created from vegetable and waste oils rather than traditional fossil fuels. Although this fuel creates the same amount of CO2 when burned, the carbon saving comes from the fuel manufacturing process, which actually absorbs CO2, up to 100% of that created when burned. However, putting in place the required infrastructure and supply chain to provide an entirely new fuel type can be somewhat cost-prohibitive for some airlines. In some cases, actually obtaining the oil required for manufacture is also an issue, with sometimes unreliable or inefficient collection methods. 

Another potential fuel-related solution could come from the use of ‘eFuel’, a method that uses electricity to create hydrogen or synthetic fuel (synfuel). In this case, hydrogen replaces traditional Jet A/A1 fuel. Airbus is planning to create three new ZEROe aircraft that would use hydrogen fuel, currently scheduled for release in 2035. However, this method is currently significantly more costly than using traditional fuels, and in most cases still creates CO2 during the manufacturing process. One way to address this is through the use of ‘green hydrogen’, which uses 100% renewable energy sources - although currently, very few plants create hydrogen this way. Another solution is through carbon capture technology such as direct air capture - a method that extracts and permanently stores CO2 underground - but again, this requires a significantly high-cost investment.

2. Fuel-efficient Aircraft

Image via Airbus

Modern aircraft include engines with typically much higher fuel efficiency per passenger. Long-haul flights can now be achieved using aircraft with two engines instead of the standard four, significantly improving fuel efficiency per passenger. As described above, new fuel technology could open the door to next-gen aircraft designed to utilise lower-emission combustion, particularly on short-haul flights. However, with the currently available average power/weight ratio a long-haul flight needs to keep its current range, aircraft would need batteries weighing 30 times more than the aircraft's current fuel intake, meaning it could not take off. Electric-powered aircraft are increasing in size and capability, but not for use at a commercial level.

Obviously, the cost of replacing entire fleets can run into the billions, so it is not the cheapest solution for airlines. However, in the near future, outdated aircraft could become extremely costly for airlines to continue operating, due to increased legislation designed to curb emissions. Many airlines may choose to upgrade their aircraft rather than succumb to these penalties. Efficient aircraft also means lower fuel costs, with the added bonus of being able to utilise their newer, greener approach as part of their sustainability strategy.

3. Route Optimisation

Image via Airline Route Maps

Choosing which aircraft to use on various routes relies on many factors, including length of flight, the average number of passengers, and typical weather conditions. However, airlines that base routing decisions solely on these factors may be missing an opportunity to also reduce carbon emissions. Improving air traffic control procedures to enable aircraft to fly the most fuel-efficient flight profiles and eliminate stacking can also be an important factor in reducing carbon emissions.

With rapidly changing markets and fleet changes, airlines are seeking ways to create the ‘perfect flight’ in terms of efficiency and sustainability. One of our airline customers, British Airways, recently showcased how aviation is decarbonising through a combination of SAF, new fleet technology (in the form of the new Airbus A320neo) and route optimisation.

Some airlines are turning to route plan optimising software. These can provide quick results, allowing you to enter various factors and scenarios and receive automatically optimised route plans that include crew management, maintenance, and booking functionality. While these solutions can certainly reduce costs and increase productivity and flight efficiency, carbon footprint reduction can only realistically be impacted if used in combination with other sustainability initiatives such as SAF or a modernised fleet.

4. Fuelling Digitalisation & Optimisation

Fuel Management Digitalisation

Fuel is one of the biggest daily operational costs for an airline, accounting for up to 30% of total daily spend. One of the easiest and most cost-efficient ways for airlines to reduce their costs and their carbon footprint is through digitalising their fuelling operations. Digitalisation provides the means for pilots to make small adjustments to target fuel amounts to allow for weight changes without the need to physically interact with the fueller. It also improves turnaround times by connecting real-time data between airlines and airports, improving overall efficiency. For airlines still utilising a combination of paper-based transactions and outdated software or spreadsheets to manage their operations, digitalisation can be a quick and relatively easy game changer.

IATA recently highlighted digitalising the refuelling process (and our recent deployment at BOS) as a key factor in the industry’s recovery.

“We must accelerate this journey to benefit from substantial efficiency gains and increased transparency.”

says Alexander Kueper, IATA’s Director, Fuel.

However, different platform providers offer different solutions. Some platforms focus on efficient fuel delivery and inventory, some on into-plane services, some purely on e-fuelling (into-plane and pilot communication). It’s also possible to find software solutions that focus on or include compliance functionality or billing and finance management. Digitalisation can improve airline efficiency in many ways, all of which often lead to increased sustainability and reduced carbon footprint via a filter-down effect, with the added bonus of saving time and money. Choosing the right platform is often a key decision in how effective this solution can be.

At i6, we believe the most effective option is to digitalise the entire airport fuel supply chain. Our fuel management technology seamlessly connects the fuel supplier, into-plane operator, and airline to track end-to-end fuel movements. This provides key stakeholders with detailed and real-time information with greater operational control and efficiency. For example, airlines using our e-fuelling technology, eHandshake®, benefit from accurate data transmission and optimised refuelling - resulting in average savings of up to 201KG CO2 with every long-haul flight (based on a 5-year case study).

Get in touch for more information about how you can digitalise your fuelling operations and reduce carbon emissions.

Transform your fuel management operations today.

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