With more than 37 million flights carrying 3.5 billion people around the world in just a single year, our environmental footprint in commercial airspace is now more important than ever. Demand for air travel is embarking on a period of unprecedented growth with expectations that by 2030 the number of commercial planes around the world will nearly double to 47,000.
So how can aviation grow sustainably? Today I released a white paper with my colleague Geoff Hunt, Vice President of Engineering and Technology at UTC Aerospace Systems, that outlines some of the innovative and integrated technologies that are breaking new ground in delivering quieter, cleaner and more efficient air travel for all of us.
The largest commercial jets can weigh in at a whopping 850,000 pounds. The heavier the plane, the more fuel burned. With 40% of airline operating costs coming from fuel, reducing fuel burn is an important element of any business strategy. Still, I would argue that an equally important part of a business strategy is to reduce the carbon footprint associated with this fuel burn.
Reducing the weight of the airplane makes sense for both the environment and airline operating costs. New technologies are doing just that, like carbon fibers and composite materials that can reduce the weight of airplane brakes and landing gear, or to electric systems in actuators that move wing flaps and remove miles of hydraulic tubes and hundreds of pounds of hydraulic fluid.
One of my retired colleagues provides the right perspective when he points out that today’s airplanes are really flying villages populated with as many as 850 people. It takes an ecosystem to lift that “village” 40,000 feet in the air and move it 600 miles per hour across our land and oceans while providing all the necessities we have on the ground: air, food, water, electricity, lights and, of course, Internet service.
The airplane ecosystem can encompass as many as 2.3 million components and parts. Taking a systems approach to drive sustainability in aviation provides synergies that enable less weight, less drag and less waste. In its simplest terms, it means:
- Less weight of an aircraft = less jet fuel burn and lower CO2 emissions
- Less weight of an aircraft + less drag = less waste
- When aircraft burn less fuel, they become more sustainable
- Lighter, more aerodynamic systems make aircraft more sustainable
What is truly remarkable about all of this: no single system drives sustainability in aviation. One by one, opportunities exist from reducing miles of cable, to the weight of aircraft components, to additive manufacturing. When you combine those with breakthroughs in jet engine design like the Pratt & Whitney Geared Turbofan™ which reduces fuel burn by 16%, or biofuels that can reduce carbon emissions even further, technologies are coming on board now to make our blue skies greener even as we expect commercial aviation to double over the next two decades.