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U.K. Airline Executives Discuss the Future of Aviation at Sustainable Skies World Summit 2024

Daniel Ross's image
Daniel Ross
Daniel Ross's image

Daniel Ross

Senior Content Contributor

672 Published Articles 1 Edited Article

Countries Visited: 56U.S. States Visited: 17

Daniel has loved aviation and travel his entire life. He earned a Master of Science in Air Transport Management and has written about travel and aviation in publications like Simple Flying, The Points...
Edited by: Katie Seemann
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Katie Seemann

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Katie has been in the points and miles game since 2015 and started her own blog in 2016. She’s been freelance writing since then and her work has been featured in publications like Travel + Leisure, F...

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With sustainability at the forefront of everyone’s mind, as consumers, it can feel like companies from all industries are overloading us with facts, figures, and stats about how green they’re being.

It can be a little overwhelming and, frankly, hard to see through the greenwashing at times.

To try and get a clearer picture of what’s actually going on, Upgraded Points headed to the Sustainable Skies World Summit in Farnborough, U.K., to attend a panel discussion with executives from Airbus, Boeing, British Airways, and Virgin Atlantic.

Can Aviation Be Made More Sustainable?

The answer is categorically yes.

There are 2 main ways to make this happen, both of which are already being implemented industry-wide. First, and arguably most pressing, is the substitution of carbon-heavy Jet A-1 fuel with greener fuels like SAF. Second is the replacement of older aircraft with more modern, fuel-efficient jets such as the Airbus A320 family NEOs, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner family, and the Airbus A350.

Let’s dive into what the industry execs had to say at the Sustainable Skies World Summit about their progress, as well as some of the barriers they’re facing.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) has been proven to be a greener alternative to Jet A-1 fuel.

Airlines and airports worldwide have already started using SAF, but not anywhere close to the extent they could be. And it’s not for lack of demand.

As it stands, there’s just not enough SAF to go around.

“Every drop of SAF that was produced last year was consumed,” said Julie Kitcher, chief sustainability officer and communications at Airbus. “The problem is availability and affordability.”

Unfortunately, there has not been enough investment in SAF for the fuel to be produced at a high enough quantity to make it affordable for airlines. At 2 to 4 times more expensive than Jet A-1, even if SAF were widely available, using it would have a hugely negative impact on airlines’ bottom lines.

Incentives for investors and government help were highlighted as ways to make SAF more affordable and to increase its creation.

This could come in the form of governments around the world introducing “some certainty around the topline,” said Sean Doyle, CEO at British Airways. This would mean that investors would be more inclined to pour more money into SAF projects, knowing that their money would be safe down the line.

Heathrow Airport on take off
Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5. Image Credit: Daniel Ross

For example, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore is planning to introduce a small 1% tax on airfares in 2026, which it says will be dedicated to promoting the use of SAF in the nation.

The government in the U.K. already imposes high taxes on airlines in the form of Air Passenger Duty (APD), which is then passed onto the consumer.

You’d like to think that at least some of this money was being put towards making aviation greener, but Shai Weiss, CEO at Virgin Atlantic, firmly believes this is not the case:

“The government is slightly disingenuous at this point,” said Weiss. “The money that goes into the government is never used to support the aviation industry.”

However, without the help of governments to incentivize investment (or even subsidize its production), it could still be several years before we see SAF being used on a wider scale. That’s without even considering that it takes 3 to 5 years from the start of construction for an SAF production facility to pump out its first gallons of product.

Hot Tip:

Virgin Atlantic recently proved the positive impact that using SAF has on reducing emissions by successfully flying the first-ever long-haul flight from New York to London using 100% SAF fuel. Carbon emissions were reduced by 64%!

Next-Generation Aircraft

Airlines worldwide are already making their fleets greener by replacing older aircraft with new models, such as the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 Dreamliner families, plus any aircraft with ‘NEO’ (new engine option) in the name.

However, as Kitcher confirmed, this only accounts for around 30% of the aircraft in the world.

Avianca A320neo at Bogota Colombia BOG
A320neo. Image Credit: Daniel Ross

While things are certainly moving in the right direction today, manufacturers like Airbus and Boeing are already looking decades ahead and focusing on completely replacing carbon-burning aircraft with the likes of hydrogen-powered aircraft.

“Our target is set on having the first narrow-body, hydrogen-powered commercial flight by 2035,” explained Kitcher.

There’s a lot to be confirmed before then, but Airbus’ aim is that the aircraft will have around 100 seats and be able to cover a distance of 1,000 to 2,000 nautical miles.

“Decarbonization is our license to operate. It’s our North Star,” said Kitcher.

Bottom Line:

Even though aviation only accounts for 2% of the world’s carbon emissions, the industry is one of the most scrutinized for its environmental impact. Thankfully, airlines and manufacturers are making strides to reduce the 2% even more by introducing greener aircraft and fuel.

Final Thoughts

Aviation certainly still has a long way to go before it can be considered even close to being carbon neutral.

However, airlines starting to use sustainable fuels and manufacturers building greener aircraft are 2 ways that prove that the industry is holding itself accountable.

For now, these small steps are certainly better than none at all. Only time will tell if huge strides can be made with the financial and practical help that airlines and manufacturers need to be able to take their efforts to the next level.

Daniel Ross's image

About Daniel Ross

Daniel has loved aviation and travel his entire life. He earned a Master of Science in Air Transport Management and has written about travel and aviation in publications like Simple Flying, The Points Guy, and more.

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