When it comes to climate change, air travel is part of the problem – generating 2.4% of the carbon emissions that cause climate change, according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI). Although that number might seem small, consider this: If global commercial aviation were a country, its national greenhouse gas emissions would rank No. 6 in the world, between Japan and Germany.
Global leaders have promised change. The nearly 200 countries that constitute the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) recently announced their intention to decarbonize international air travel by 2050.
Leading the way to make good on that goal are organizations like GE Aviation, the U.S. Air Force and NASA. At those and other organizations, aerospace engineers are working on state-of-the-art engines equipped with sensors and computing capabilities to make air travel cleaner. With help from sophisticated software, alternative fuel sources and other innovations, experts expect to see new levels of aviation sustainability in the years ahead.
“Aviation will not go away,” said Jeff Shaknaitis, customer sustainability leader for GE Aviation. “It has become essential to the way that our society operates. You need to continue to connect people around the world. You can’t take aviation out of that equation.”
The industry has a daunting task ahead, acknowledged Shaknaitis, whose work faces scrutiny from environmentalists who are skeptical of the industry’s sustainability efforts. Among them, activists like Fossielvrij NL, a Dutch group that filed the airline industry’s first-ever greenwashing lawsuit in July, accusing Dutch airline KLM of making false claims about the sustainability of air travel.
Still, Shaknaitis is full of optimism.
“It’s an incredible stack of challenges to solve in a short period of time, and I can’t think of anything more fulfilling to work on,” he said.
Aviation impacts the climate in myriad ways. There’s the burning of oil for jet fuel, of course, and associated carbon emissions. Studies show that even contrails, the condensation trails that stream behind some aircraft, can cause a greenhouse effect.
To achieve ICAO’s goal – net-zero emissions from aviation by 2050 – the industry must tackle several pillars, according to Shaknaitis: improving aircraft design; creating fuel alternatives, called sustainable aviation fuel (SAF); building efficiencies into flight operations and infrastructure; and taking advantage of carbon offsets.
“As an important enterprise in this industry, we have to play in all those other spaces,” Shaknaitis said. “We have to do our part across all these different pillars to really support the industry in this path to net-zero.”
As one of the world’s top suppliers of aircraft engines, GE is leading the way. In partnership with aircraft equipment manufacturer Safran, for example, its engineers are developing new engine technologies that can lower fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions by more than 20%.
But airlines don’t have to wait for new technologies. Today’s commercial engines are already 40% more fuel-efficient than those built in the 1970s, according to GE Aerospace.
“There’s still a lot of opportunity with customers around the world to renew their fleets to the most up-to-date, newest, most fuel-efficient engines and aircraft,” Shaknaitis said. “That technology is available now.”
Fueling the Future
When it comes to alternative fuel sources, all GE Aerospace engines can already run on approved SAF. Meanwhile, the company is supporting the development of new options, including hybrid electric ones.
GE also is developing flight analytics software to optimize operations. In 2021, for example, it collaborated with Australian airline Qantas to unveil FlightPulse, a cloud-based tool that uses airline- and pilot-specific data to help pilots use fuel more efficiently. In its first year, Qantas avoided 5.71 million kilograms of carbon emissions and boosted the adoption of fuel-saving procedures by 15%, according to GE.
Using cloud-based software to harness data might be the easiest and cheapest way to make a difference right now, according to Shaknaitis.
“I would argue that these software tools are really the most cost-effective way to start achieving decarbonization in our industry,” he said.
“These types of software tools – for what the subscription to software costs versus being able to save under 1% on your annual fuel costs – that’s huge for an airline.”
GE isn’t the only one in the industry working on solutions.
The U.S. Air Force and NASA are researching SAF options. Delta and MIT are investigating ways to eliminate contrails. And Airbus and Autodesk have teamed up on a project using artificial intelligence to design more sustainable aircraft.
And then there’s the engineering software company Prewitt Ridge, which is supporting the industry with design tools that make it easier for engineers to stay focused on sustainability goals. Its system links engineering requirements – for example, building a lighter airplane – to engineering tools so that engineers can quickly tweak plans and concepts.
“We’re working on ways to make that propagate through faster, so you’ll either find that weight reduction sooner or you’ll minimize the rework time,” said Steve Massey, a former SpaceX engineer who is now Prewitt Ridge’s co-founder and CEO.
Clearly, aviation companies and software developers are working hard on sustainable aviation solutions. But they can’t achieve net-zero on their own. Massey said that regulators and customers need to get comfortable with new designs.
And governments will need to step up, too, said Shaknaitis.
“The world, our industry, governments will need to commit tens of billions of dollars a year … to just build out the infrastructure needed,” he said.
Funding challenges notwithstanding, there’s no denying the demand for sustainable aviation options. Global temperatures are rising, and airlines want to do better as they report on their sustainability efforts, which they must do in some jurisdictions, like the European Union.
“Companies all over the world have really, at an incredibly quick rate, started to adopt some of these practices,” Shaknaitis said. “It's imperative that we are really paying attention to this space and doing what we can to stay ahead of the regulations and stay as a preferred supplier to our customers.”
Sarah Lindenfeld Hall is a longtime journalist and freelance writer who writes regularly about the future of work and technology. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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