Dr Charles E Schlumberger, Lead Air Transport Specialist at the World Bank and moderator of the “sustainability in aviation” panel during the Strategy Summit, didn’t mince his word. The economy in the US and elsewhere was suffering from “an enormous financial bubble”, concern about climate change was growing across the world, and cheap oil wasn’t going to make a return in a resource-constrained world. Given this triple challenge, he asked, “is aviation growth sustainable?”
Despite the challenges on the horizon, most panellists were rather optimistic about the future of the industry. Kenneth Button, Professor and Director of the Center for Transportation Policy, Operations and Logistics at George Mason University, opined that the world was actually very responsive if the incentives are right.
Aircraft have become much more efficient, and “airlines are much cleaner today. Load factors were 50% in the 1970s, today they are at 80 per cent thanks to better management by the airlines,” he said. He predicted that oil was likely to remain around 100 dollars a barrel for some time, the current equilibrium.
“There are no climate deniers in our industry”, added Nancy Young, Vice President of Environmental Affairs at Airlines for America, highlighting the restructuring of US airlines over the past years and their multi-billion-dollar investment in the renewal of their fleets. However, more needed to be done, not least in the area of air traffic management, as the development and roll-out of NextGen in the US as well as the Single European Sky have been painfully slow.
Alan Robinson, Founder of Paradigm BioAviation, agreed that aviation was stepping up to the plate, but was concerned about the speed with which alternative fuels are being brought to market. “Building a biofuels plant in the US is one of the more complicated things I have done in my 40 years in business”, he added with British understatement. Jacqueline Drumheller, Sustainability Manager of Alaska Air Group agreed that while airlines are keen to build up reliable local sources of biofuels, scale and price are still significant hurdles that airlines need to find ways to overcome.
Panellists concurred that there is no silver bullet on the horizon, at least not in next 10 to 15 years, and that the shotgun approach was more promising. This approach manifests itself in efforts around the world to create regional value chains for alternative fuels. One of the most promising ideas in this field seems to be the conversion of municipal waste into aviation biofuels, something pioneered by British Airways in London. This addresses the problem of landfill while and at the same time creates a predictable long-term supply of biomass. As Nacy Young of A4A put it, “the world is going to be carbon constraint”, so we better be prepared.