The environmental impact of aviation is a massive problem and one that will not be solved quickly nor easily. And as the global airline community wraps another annual meeting of its leaders it is clear that there are three types of players. The bulk of the airlines are keen to see innovation driven by a combination of airline and government actions. Through regulatory frameworks, tax benefits for research and operational changes the two parties will combine to reduce some emissions. A very small subset, mostly in China, does not want to commit to such changes, going so far as to speak out and vote against them during the most recent IATA Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Seoul.
And then there are the airlines choosing to invest their own money, above and beyond the common commitment. These are the mavericks of the aviation world, and today they are led by KLM.
The advent of aviation has had a major impact on the world, offering a new means of bringing people closer together. This privilege goes hand in hand with huge responsibility towards our planet. KLM takes this very seriously and has therefore invested in sustainability for many years. By joining hands with other parties we can build a plant that will accelerate the development of sustainable aviation fuel. – Pieter Elbers, KLM President and CEO
KLM’s environmental commitment is not unique, but the carrier’s actions are more significant than others’. Last week the carrier committed to a massive investment in sustainable fuel over the next decade. The partnership with SkyNRG and Schiphol Airport will see significant new infrastructure come online in 2022, culminating with the purchase of 75,000 tons of fuel per year by the airline. The plant expects to produce 100,000 tons per year from regional industrial waste, leaving some fuel available for other airlines as well.
KLM is not alone in its biofuel investment. United Airlines made a similar push in recent weeks, committing to the purchase of up to 10 million gallons of cost-competitive, commercial scale biofuel over the next two years. United’s commitment is a renewal of a partnership that launched in 2013. The fuel is produced in Paramount, California by World Energy and helps power United’s operations at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). United uses the biofuel to help power all of its departures at LAX, allowing it to claim the title of the most flights in the industry powered by sustainable materials. The carrier claims a 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions on a lifecycle basis with the biofuel.
In both of these examples the airlines committed to the project without waiting for government guarantees or research grants to fund the operations. As IATA pursues a policy focused on government cooperation on the R&D front this action and investment is commendable.
New Aircraft Concepts
Beyond the biofuel initiative, KLM is pursuing other avenues to further reduce emissions in the longer term. One such partnership, announced on Monday on the sidelines of the AGM, will help fund a project at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) to further research the “Flying-V” aircraft. The V-shaped design integrates cargo, fuel and passenger seating into the wings of the plane, allowing for a significant reduction of weight. The design aims to carry the same number of passengers as the A350 and fit in the same airport or maintenance footprint of that type, while offering a 20% reduction in fuel burn on current engine technology. Future engine improvements will further decrease emissions for the plane.
The Flying-V is very much a concept today and both KLM and TU Delft are aware of that. The investment announced this week aims to deliver a flying 1:20 scale model later this year, as well as a full size cabin cross-section mockup. These are to be displayed during KLM Experience Days at Schiphol in October, coinciding with KLM’s 100th birthday.
We are incredibly pleased to be able to cooperate with our trusted partner KLM on our combined mission to make aviation more sustainable. Radically new and highly energy-efficient aircraft designs such as the Flying-V are important in this respect, as are new forms of propulsion. Our ultimate aim is one of emission free flight. Our cooperation with KLM offers a tremendous opportunity to bring about real change. – Professor Henri Werij, Dean of the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering at TU Delft
While neither TU Delft nor KLM are willing to get into details on the passenger experience of the new design there are some recent compelling developments that could make the flying wing work this time where previous iterations failed. Most notably, the idea of a synthetic window, currently used for the middle seat on Emirates‘ newest 777 first class cabins, gives passengers the comfort of looking outside where such views would not normally be possible.
Intermodality and the Short-Haul problem
Elbers also broke ranks from others in the industry during the weekend’s meetings when suggesting that KLM would be willing to shift services to high speed rail for certain short-haul markets, assuming tight integration with operators to smooth the passenger flow. This would free up slots at the carrier’s Schiphol hub for use on higher value routes while not destroying the economics of a hub-airport operation. But Elbers might be alone in Europe with that attitude.
As French lawmakers consider banning short flights outright where comparably timed high-speed rail options exist flag carrier Air France is not keen on the idea, even though the carrier does place its flight number on some TGV services. IATA’s Regional Vice President for Europe Rafael Schvartzman also addressed that topic, suggesting that ensuring a choice of options delivers the best solution for passengers. He described the focus on aviation as “unfair” and “very biased” while claiming it “reduces the value of connectivity across Europe.”
Optimizing such intermodal transportation is not a trivial task. Most notably, baggage handling and security barriers are challenging for passengers. But talking about it as a reasonable and viable option that could be expanded is not something most airline executives pursue today.