Comment: Can sustainability and growth in air travel be compatible?

They can with the aid of technology, argues Sébastien Fabre, chief executive of Sita for Aircraft

The current turbulent economic environment is undoubtedly adding fresh challenges for aviation, with the industry still recovering from the devasting impacts of Covid-19.

Operating on reduced margins and with an ambitious carbon net-zero goal to achieve by 2050, can the industry feasibly ensure its success post-pandemic and maintain long-term growth?

At Sita, we believe an environmentally sustainable industry and growth are not mutually exclusive. But to achieve this, we need to start now.

Sita data shows the industry recovery is underway. Global air traffic in 2021 was at 64% of pre-Covid (2019) levels, but still 18% up on 2020. However, the pandemic resulted in airlines losing $51.8 billion.

The signs are encouraging for 2022 and beyond. But it is clear airlines face another year of adverse economic shocks, placing increasing pressure on their costs and activities.

We have seen a surge in fuel prices, with the average price of jet fuel in March 2022 up 96% year on year. That created an additional $78-billion burden on carriers. Yet the industry must plan its recovery and growth without negatively impacting the environment.

Sustainability is not prohibitive

The industry’s commitment to reach carbon net-zero by 2050 is challenging but necessary to address climate change at the pace required by climate science and to counteract any future growth in the sector’s emissions.

Reducing environmental impacts is not new for aviation and it need not prohibit the growth and success of the industry. Aviation has been working to address its environmental impacts for many years, including on air quality, noise and emissions.

We see an industry looking to use technology to build back better and greener following the pandemic.

Sita’s latest Air Transport IT Insights study revealed the industry is planning for its future by investing in technology to support both its recovery and sustainability efforts.

Investment drivers include the need to respond to rapid shifts in passenger traffic and travel regulations, the anticipated rise in demand for travel and the need for increasing operational efficiencies to make cost savings and reduce flying’s carbon footprint.

The IT spending priorities of airports and airlines are focused both on improving the passenger experience with more digitally enabled journeys and on more sustainable operations, with energy efficiencies, smarter infrastructure and data-driven flight-path optimisation to enhance route efficiencies and reduce fuel burn.

Many governments are providing ‘green stimulus’ programmes to boost the post-pandemic economic recovery and private sector investment in sustainability and developing a new green technology market.

Growth opportunities for airports and airlines

The rising fuel price is likely to drive a faster move towards more-sustainable fuels. Sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) and new energy-efficient aircraft and engines are two primary ways for the industry to cut carbon emissions and reliance on fossil fuels.

However, these cannot be widely adopted today given both the lack of availability and affordability of SAF, in particular.

Operational improvements are a way to enable the industry to reduce emissions more immediately and can do so by up to 10% through efficiencies achieved with today’s technology.

For example, airports can process passengers more swiftly by enabling remote check-in before arrival and self-service technology, enabling them to maximise existing investment without having to expand their physical footprint.

Using technology to leverage data for greater situational awareness and more-informed decision-making is also key to realising efficiencies and reducing emissions.

Sita is trialling a new emissions-management capability, leveraging our Airport Management solution to enable Palermo airport to improve the measurement and optimisation of emissions in and around the airport.

We are also helping airlines to improve their situational awareness and reduce fuel burn and costs while building climate resilience by integrating our eWAS Pilot and OptiFlight flight-plan applications.

The results can be immediate and concrete. Fuel savings of 5%-6% on aircraft climbs are possible for each flight without affecting passenger safety or comfort.

The financial pressures on the industry may be the catalyst for lasting changes and creating a more environmentally conscious industry without losing the economic benefits of a strong airline sector.

Sébastien Fabre is chief executive of Sita for Aircraft, part of air transport IT and communications specialist Sita

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