21 Jun 22

A peak inside developments in sustainable air travel

As we in fleet and leasing transition to smarter mobility, it’s interesting to take a peak at what’s happening in other sectors.

The airline industry, for example, is having to innovate its way into sustainable travel. This isn’t because it’s a big polluter, surprisingly, but because businesses that rely on air travel need to decarbonise in all areas and business travel is one of them.

For a deep dive into the current issue of Moving People, Moving Goods, download our latest guide to check out developments in fleet and logistics.

According to the Air Transport Action Group, the global aviation industry produces just 2.1% of all human-induced carbon dioxide emissions and is responsible for only 12% of emissions from all transport sources (compared to 74% for road transport).

Sustainable Aviation Fuel

That said, jet aircraft in service today are over 80% more fuel efficient than their 1960s counterparts. There have been considerable developments in the production of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) using sources such as algae, Jatropha (a flowering plant originating in Mexico) and waste by-products. These developments in fuel could potentially cut the carbon footprint of aviation by 80%.

However, ‘going electric’ is not an option for large, long-haul airplanes. They are just too heavy. So instead, smaller, lighter electric planes are being developed that will cover shorter routes (London to Amsterdam, for example) and carry a maximum number of passengers below 190.

Hydrogen aircraft

Meanwhile, hydrogen aircraft are being developed that either burn hydrogen as a fuel or use it to generate electricity from hydrogen fuel cells. UK-based ZeroAvia was the first company to execute a passenger flight powered by hydrogen fuel cells in 2020. The company did this in a retrofitted, commercial-grade Piper M-Class six-seater plane.

But although hydrogen holds more energy than jet fuel (when compared weight-for-weight), it takes up more room in storage, which means fuel tanks would have to be four times the size they are currently on a standard jet plane. This would result in less room for passengers and/or cargo.

The re-emergence of airships

One exciting development in aviation is the reintroduction of airships. Invented by French man Henri Giffard in 1852, the first airship used a steam engine to turn a propeller. German engineer Paul Haenlein incorporated an internal combustion engine (ICE) in his airship 20 years later. In 1883, back in France, the Tissandier brothers successfully powered an airship using an electric motor and airships were a popular mode of transport across the Atlantic between Europe and America in the 1920s and 30s.

Meanwhile, in South Yorkshire, England, a fleet of helium-filled jet zero airships (now called jets) is being built by Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) for use in Europe.

Described as “the world’s first zero-emission aircraft”, the Airlander 10 is being supplied to European airline Air Nostrum Group for delivery in 2026 onwards. HAV will supply Air Nostrum with ten 100-seat Airlanders to begin initial operations across Spain.

In a report on Energy Live News, Tom Grundy, HAV Chief Executive Officer, said: “As countries like France, Denmark, Norway, Spain and the UK begin to put in place ambitious mandates for the decarbonisation of domestic and short-haul flight, HAV and Air Nostrum Group are demonstrating how we can get there – and get there soon.”

Although it will never be able to travel at anything like the speed of today’s jet airliners, the Airlander can be airborne for 5 days, carry a 10 tonne payload, travel 4,000 nautical miles at an altitude of 20,000 feet. I, for one, cannot wait for my ticket to travel on the first commercial passenger flight and it’ll be interesting to see when that will be.

Images courtesy of Hybrid Air Vehicles

Authored by: Alison Pittaway