Posted by: Richard Lenthall | June 23, 2010

Airline Industry Awaits Fuel Evolution

The airline industry is under pressure. Oil prices, global recession and volcanic eruptions have combined to heap misery on airlines and travellers alike. 2008’s oil price fluctuation had been barely overcome when the global recession hit and caused many airlines to report record losses and some to fold completely. The eruption of an Icelandic volcano added to the problems when European airspace was shut down in May. But it’s another high visibility issue which will continue to pose airlines problems, it’s impact on the environment.

There are two major forms of pollution associated with air travel. Noise pollution is experienced by people living under a flight path or near an airport. Air pollution caused by a jet engine’s emissions from spent aviation fuel is the more prevalent and has the more impact. The reason is that the jet engine is still woefully fuel inefficient, but more importantly, has not experienced any form of reinvention or evolution comparative to that which has benefitted rail transport.

Governments face a dilemma. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace queue up to give politicians a hard time whenever airport expansion is discussed but air travel is essential to the health of a developed economy, and will continue to be so for a long while, so how do they find the balance? There are two answers. One, invest in an integrated transport policy and offer alternatives to flying (such as high speed rail), two, encourage the development of a non-fossil fuel for airline use. The latter is not directly within the politician’s realm, yet it will yield the greatest advance. To explain how let’s take a look at history and see how rail’s “convenient coincidence” happened.

How Rail’s Advantage Took Shape

Imagine Western Europe back in the 1930’s. Railway networks are in abundance but clean electric trains are constrained to more urban journeys so ‘InterCity’ expresses are run by enormous steam engines. Beautiful they look, but dirty, smoky and also completely unenvironmentally friendly. Why? Because the fuel for a steam engine is coal, which during its use emitted large clouds of smoke.  Freight yards, passenger termini and engine depots were not so far removed from what we experience at airports today, noisy, smelly and with large amounts of air pollution.

In the 1960’s engine design evolved and with it the fuel the railways use changed. Diesel engine locomotives became cheaper to manufacture and maintain and over time they replaced steam engines that required more time and manpower to keep going. In the 1970’s France began to develop high-speed trains which operate on an overhead electricity supply, virtually eliminating air pollution. Further development in nations such as Germany followed in the 1980’s and with the proliferation of high speed rail routes came two major consequences; Firstly, on routes where High Speed rail competed directly with airlines the rail service took large portions of the market share occasionally forcing the airline to pull out or vastly reduce its service. Second, development in high speed trains and their up-take continued at such a pace that trains designed to run at 330km/h are now being built.

It is important to note that neither of these factors were driven by environmental pressures when they were first observed.  Nevertheless no one can argue the current environmental benefits but it has been a journey of fortune and coincidence that rail has been happy to ride on.

How Can Airlines Achieve a Rebalance?

Environmental pressures aren’t going away so the airline industry has some work ahead.  To become more environmentally friendly, reduce carbon emissions and increase predictability in operating costs an evolution of fuel is needed. Some airlines are already on the case.

In 2008 Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand began trialling the use of Biofuels which are a replacement for fossil fuel based oils. Due to the natural production of Biofuels Boeing estimate that they could reduce harmful emissions by 60-80%. It is also estimated that airlines will contribute proportionately more in terms of carbon emissions due to the expansion of the flight market and the switch of other transport modes to greener fuels, it then becomes clear that the aeroplane engine manufacturers and airline operators need to act quickly.

What will drive the change for the airlines?

As with the development of railway engines the switch to a more environmentally friendly fuel will need more than a single impetus in order for it to be realised. But this is where the coincidence factor can work for the airlines.

‘Peak Oil’, a political argument based around the thought that the world is rapidly approaching the point where the extraction of crude oil ‘peaks’ and starts to reduce is gaining traction. Should the theory be true oil prices will start to rise. Notwithstanding that, the global economy is fragile at best and 2008’s oil price spike was fuelled by speculators as much as a shortage of the commodity and it could well happen again.

These risks should spur the development in aeroplane engine R&D and should also focus the environmental argument on to where it can have the most impact.

It is not in our best long term interests to suppress the airline industry. Be it for the transportation of goods, the access of markets or enjoyment of tourism, all of which contribute to a successful and healthy economy, it is clear flying is going to be around for a long while yet, and while it is obvious that some journeys do have a practical land based alternative, intercontinental journeys will still need to be made by flying.

Instead of arguing solely against airport development governments and airlines should be pressed for more carbon neutral flights and the development of aeroplanes that run on Biofuels. This will give the case for green issues more relevancy and credibility.

This situation highlights the possibility of applying differing taxes or costs for certain flights, but it certainly does highlight the need for an integrated transport policy which will aid people in making the right decision, based on cost, convenience and environmental impact.

As a final thought, I wonder what would have happened to the environmental friendly transit debate if our high speed rail services were still provided by Steam Trains run on coal going at 330km/h?



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