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Sustainable Air Travel

Chris Williamson

When Chris was asked to work with Andrew Weston for group projects at Leicester School of Architecture (for no other reason than they were next to each other alphabetically) he discovered that their skills dovetailed perfectly. Their shared ambition made for a perfect business partnership.

The emphasis on reducing carbon emissions is forcing all of us to examine the way we travel. Greta Thunberg sailed to New York over 15 days rather than flying in six hours. This is commercially unsustainable for most businesses. But there could be other solutions.

The world is facing a climate emergency. Just one return flight from London to New York produces a greater carbon footprint than a whole year’s personal allowance: the average personal footprint in Britain is 7 tonnes; to meet targets this needs to reduce to 1.2 tonnes.

Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the Tyndall Centre in Manchester says: “If we are going to fly, it should be for truly extraordinary and important reasons. Otherwise we should not go, or we should take a slower form of travel and average a longer visit. Thinking through the pros and cons of flying engenders a very different attitude towards travel, time, emissions and moral responsibility.”

Legislating against air travel is an interesting argument. Groups including Greenpeace are suggesting a ‘frequent flying’ levy – a system that progressively increases the tax according to how often you fly, because 15% of adults take 70% of all flights. So far the initiative hasn’t gained much support.

Other aerospace firms are tackling the industry’s growing contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, with electric engines a solution.

Industry consultants Roland Berger say there are 170 electronically propelled aircraft in development. But will this be enough to offset the growing demand for air travel?

The aviation industry has committed to reducing carbon emissions by 50% by 2050 from their 2005 level. Blending sustainable aviation fuel such as biofuels are key to meeting this target. It is estimated that biofuels will reach 10% of aviation fuel demand by 2030 and close to 20% by 2040. Since 2008, more than 150,000 flights have used biofuels but this accounted for less than 0.1% total aviation fuel consumption in 2018. So clearly there is much room for improvement.

The 2019 Paris Airshow saw the launch of a prototype of the world’s first commercial all- electric passenger aircraft. Israeli firm Eviation says the craft will carry nine passengers for up to 650 miles at 10,000ft at 276mph. It is expected to enter service in 2022. But there is a problem with battery technology over 650 miles so electric powered long haul flights are out of the question.

“Electric flying is becoming a reality and we can now foresee a future that is not exclusively dependent on jet fuel”, says EasyJet Chief Executive Johan Lundgren.

It’s a statement underscored by a report from investment bank UBS which predicts the aviation sector will quickly switch to hybrid and electric aircraft for regional travel, with an eventual demand for 550 hybrid airliners each year between 2028 and 2040. Even assuming huge advances in battery technology, with batteries that are 30 times more efficient and “energy-dense” than they are today, it would only be possible to fly an A320 airliner for a fifth of its range with just half of its payload, says Airbus’s chief technology officer Grazia Vittadini.

“Unless there is some radical, yet-to-be invented paradigm shift in energy storage, we are going to rely on hydrocarbon fuels for the foreseeable future”, says Paul Eremenko, United Technologies Chief Technology Officer.

The big problem with this is that 80% of the aviation industry’s emissions come from passenger flights longer than 1,500km- a distance no electric airliner could yet fly. Is the only answer to stop long-haul flights? Rolls-Royce’s Paul Stein says starkly that the world would be in a “dark place” if we stopped travelling. He argues that in a global economy “peaceful co-existence comes about from travelling and understanding each other; if we move away from that

I am very concerned it’s not the direction mankind should be going in”. But there are other alternatives too. If internet and connectivity can be ensured at all times, the need for speed could be less necessary.

Devin Liddell, a futurist at Teague, the Seattle-based consultancy says: "A hundred years from now, you actually may want to be reacquainted with the marvel of flight and one way to do that is not by going faster but by going slower."

I recently visited the HQ of Hybrid Air Vehicles and was shown around the prototype of the Airlander 10. The prototype cabin is extremely impressive. The lounge area is spacious and relaxing with a bar and dining area. The bedrooms are beautifully designed. The company sees the market initially aimed towards leisure travel rivalling the cruise ship industry. But there is surely a market for slower, better connected, more comfortable business travel. There is no cabin pressurisation because the air ship cruises at 12,000 ft which also means the views are fantastic through large windows. The whole experience is just much more conducive than trying to work in a cramped uncomfortable noisy environment with poor air quality. Another advantage is that the airship can take off and land in the city centre avoiding travel to airports. The airship could land on the river Thames for example in the heart of London.

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Passport and visas could be checked on board. Why when I’ve spent 24 hours on a plane do I have to queue for an hour to get into Sydney or Los Angeles? It’s hardly a warm welcome.

The design of airports needs to change too. Only a handful of airports are tolerable to use. They are soulless, joyless places with horrendous walking distances. Apart from the Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia lounges the rest are more like the cafes in Debenhams and look what happened to them. The choices for food should match the High Street not be limited to a few chains. The airport experience is generally poor relying on the excitement of the journey to compensate. The joy of travel has all but disappeared. We need much better security screening areas, with more space and privacy for removing belts, shoes, coats and jackets, laptops and liquids.

True there are many more people flying now. At any one time, we are told, there are half a million passengers in the skies. It is difficult to accommodate those numbers with the effortless elegance in the Pan Am nostalgic images. Difficult but as the Airlander 10 shows, not impossible.

The need for travel will be reduced by the improvement in virtual experiences but this might only seem to intensify the thrill of the actual experience. Virtual meetings will be functional but face to face meetings will be a joy. But we may take more time to get there sustainably and comfortably; less need to rush.

It is highly likely that we will travel less but unlikely we will seek extreme solutions like Greta Thunberg's trip to New York by yacht. We are an amazingly creative species and knowing what we now know about car and airplane emissions, we are inventing ways to solve the problem and create more sustainable and civilised environments.

Chris Williamson

When Chris was asked to work with Andrew Weston for group projects at Leicester School of Architecture (for no other reason than they were next to each other alphabetically) he discovered that their skills dovetailed perfectly. Their shared ambition made for a perfect business partnership.

How can we help?

Please get in touch if you’d like to know more about us and how we work with our clients, consultants and colleagues.