Wings of Change – Exploring the Future of Sustainable Aviation

When you run a magazine about sustainable tourism, the question of flying always hangs around like a wet blanket. If you’ve read our previous articles and statements, you know One Planet Journey is a progress leaning organisation, allergic to doom, gloom, and shame. Everyone knows airplanes need to reduce their carbon footprint. And while we embrace trains, flying is indispensable for longer journeys. We believe in a world where people meet and enjoy each other’s company and culture. In short, we have to fix the problem. A daunting task to be sure, but humans are pretty crafty when in a bind and there is advancement if you care to look deeper. We did and sustainable aviation is happening. Let’s take to the skies and find out where we’re at.

White clouds on a blue sky

Sustainable Aviation

Sustainable aviation – success through innovation and collaboration

To bring about the intended change, it’s important to understand that progress builds on several divergent points of attack with different timeframes. As the saying goes, it takes a village. Technologies need time to mature, scale, and become cost efficient, and consumer mindsets don’t shift overnight. The struggle will take decades, much like we are seeing in the car market in the transition from a fossil to an electric fleet.

Fuel Efficiency

Aircraft manufacturers are constantly investing in cutting-edge technologies to develop lighter, more aerodynamic jets that reduce fuel consumption. A significant step towards sustainable aviation lies in continuing this effort. It might not get the headlines of electric planes, but take the long perspective and it gives you an idea of the progress made on this front. Jet powered passenger craft entered service in the 1950s and sees a 15% fuel efficiency improvement for every generation of plane introduced. Coupled with lightweight materials and improved aerodynamics, the current fleet is 80% more efficient than its initial predecessors.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel

Kerosene, the traditional propellant for airplanes, has a high energy density compared to batteries, which explains its longevity, despite the adverse climate effects. As of late, the industry has committed itself to sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), which emit considerably fewer greenhouse gases in relation to kerosene. Derived from renewable sources, these biofuels come in different forms, for example algae, biomass, and palm oil, and are central to achieving carbon footprint targets for the sector as a whole, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Before electric plane technology can handle medium to long-haul flights, SAFs are considered the best alternative to reduce harmful emissions.

A CO2 decrease of over 50% is possible, depending on the type of biofuel used. By 2025 SAF’s will achieve a 2% market penetration, high cost and lack of availability barriers to more rapid growth. It’s important to stress that to be labelled a SAF, it can’t compete with food crops, forests, fresh water access, or top class agricultural lands. Furthermore, third party certification is a must.

Green algae liquid in test tube

Algae biofuel

Electrification technologies

Electric and hybrid aircraft represent an exciting new frontier in sustainable aviation. With electric cars hitting their stride and electric boats winning more fans, one can only hope for a similar development of airplanes. For short-haul flights it looks promising, but for medium and

Illustration of electric plane charged by a battery

Battery powered electric plane

Several companies are working on developing electric aircraft capable of shorter journeys. They leverage clean electric propulsion systems to eliminate direct emissions and reduce noise pollution. Denmark and Sweden have set targets to make domestic flights fossil free by 2030 and airlines like Delta have ordered smaller electric planes for rollout in a few years. The technology is still raw and breakthroughs can change timelines and plans.

Sustainable Infrastructure

Airports worldwide are getting into the game, installing solar power, optimising water usage, and employing waste management strategies. They are adopting sustainable design principles that highlight natural lighting, green spaces, and eco-friendly materials. Copenhagen and Amsterdam are examples of forward leaning airports with renewable energy programs taking centre stage.

Airport hall with big crowds of people

Crowded airport

Collaborative Environment

The aviation industry understands that addressing sustainability challenges requires collaboration. Airlines, aircraft manufacturers, airports, and governing bodies are coming together to set ambitious goals and drive collective action. Initiatives like the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) aim to mitigate emissions through tailored programs. Moreover, sector-specific associations and organisations are working to develop standards, share best practices, and foster knowledge exchange to speed up the adoption of sustainable aviation operations. This includes efforts to reduce in-flight garbage, enhance recycling, and minimise single-use plastics.

Sustainable Aviation through Conscious Choices

Progress goes beyond technological advancements and industry initiatives; it also depends on decisions made by passengers. Travellers can support sustainable aviation by opting for airlines that prioritise sustainability, participating in optional biofuel surcharge programs like KLM has experimented with, and choosing direct flights whenever possible to reduce fuel consumption. France has gone further and abolished domestic routes that would take under 2.5 hours by train. It will be interesting to see the effects of this measure, compared to voluntary schemes and innovation.

Two high speed trains facing each other

French high speed trains

Would you fly on an electric plane? Have you paid extra for sustainable aviation fuel? Let us know in the comment section! Don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter and benefit from tips, interviews, and inspirational examples of sustainable travel and tourism.

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