Aviation’s technological evolution is being overshadowed by the impact of its environmental footprint. This is a consequence of rising consumer appetite for air travel, confirms the EU Aviation Safety Agency’s (EASA) 2022 European Aviation Environmental Report, a study to which Clean Aviation, the EU’s research and innovation program for transforming aviation towards a climate neutral future, contributed data and insights.
The report reveals that flight frequencies at Europe’s airports rose 15 percent between 2005 and 2019 to 9.3 million, as passenger kilometers increased by 90 percent (figures beyond 2019 are nonrepresentative, due to the pandemic).
Despite significant environmental improvements and the benefits of market growth, namely societal connectivity, tourism and international commerce, this rising demand, of course, comes at a price: CO2 emissions from flights departing these airports reached 147 million tons in 2019 — which was 34 percent more than in 2005. Aviation’s emissions have continued and will continue to grow exponentially if we do not break this trend.
According to the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) latest data, global air traffic is now at 73.7 percent of pre-COVID levels, while total passenger numbers to, from and within Europe are expected to reach 86 percent of 2019 values before the end of 2022, with a full recovery anticipated in 2024.
Between 1989 and 2019, the air transport system quadrupled but in comparison, emissions only doubled — a significant achievement — but we still have to do better.
Clearly, we must urgently cut our reliance on fossil fuel, and EASA’s report points towards some remedial pathways: it predicts that by 2050, in-sector measures could reduce CO2 emissions by 69 percent to 59 million tons compared to a business-as-usual ‘technology freeze’ scenario (19 percent from technology/design, 8 percent from air traffic management operations (ATM-Ops), 37 percent from sustainable aviation fuel and 5 percent from electric/hydrogen aircraft).
Collaboration to expedite rulemaking
EASA’s irrefutable conclusion that new aeronautical technologies must play a significant role in facilitating European aviation’s net-zero aspirations aligns with Clean Aviation’s Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda, which is linked to the EU Green Deal objectives. Clean Aviation’s goal is to reduce aircraft greenhouse gas emissions by at least 30 percent compared with 2020 state-of-the-art aircraft, through the use of disruptive and impactful new technologies, in order to make a big step toward climate-neutral aviation by 2050.
To reach aviation’s climate-neutral targets by 2050, aircraft manufacturers and regulators must work symbiotically as new technologies are developed. Hence, a Memorandum of Cooperation between EASA and Clean Aviation has recently been signed, aiming to reduce risk and demonstrate the feasibility of innovative aeronautical concepts and technologies.
Having EASA on Clean Aviation’s governing board, technical committee and scientific advisory body will accelerate the formulation of new safety rules. This deeper interaction will also facilitate European aviation’s ambition to set new safety and reliability standards for disruptive new aeronautical technologies in the broader global context.
Reimagining European aviation’s environmental credentials has been advancing ever since the launch of the Clean Sky 1 and Clean Sky 2 programs — these have already delivered very tangible advances for the EU’s research and innovation drive.
Clean Aviation, the third incarnation, goes much further, skipping a technology generation, and surging ahead with 20 daring new projects. These support Clean Aviation’s laser-sharp focus via three disruptive thrusts: New technologies for hydrogen-powered aircraft; hybrid electric regional aircraft; and ultra-efficient short- and medium-haul aircraft (all targeting flights under 4,000 kilometers, which are responsible for around 65 percent of global aviation CO2 emissions).
Clean Aviation’s projects will bring to fruition key technology bricks for the aeronautical landscape of the 2030s and beyond, pushing the frontiers of thermal management and electrical distribution solutions for hybrid-electric powered aircraft; advancing the science of lightweight liquid hydrogen storage solutions; and spearheading ultra-efficient propulsion projects.
Beyond these trailblazing initiatives there are many more in the pipeline, and qualifying innovators out there who wish to participate in this journey are encouraged to engage with Clean Aviation via its calls process.
The innovation or certification riddle
However, Clean Aviation’s mission to deliver climate-neutral aeronautics means a ‘chicken or egg’ riddle must be resolved: How to develop and certify rules and standards to ensure the safety of disruptive new technology that might be the ‘silver bullet’ for net-zero flying? How and why would its teams develop these breakthroughs without confidence that they can be certified for use in the future aviation system? After all, pioneers cannot innovate without visibility of future requirements for safety and certification; conversely, rulemakers cannot formulate and enforce regulations without understanding the properties of new technologies and the design philosophy of the innovators.
Air safety is paramount
Until now, aviation’s safety standards have evolved and improved steadily, as manufacturers push the technology barriers to improve performance, while the regulators ensure checks and balances are in place to maintain aviation’s admirable safety standards by sharpening the rules and ensuring new technology is compliant, dependable and trusted by operators, passengers and the public.
Previously, airworthiness certification processes have been linear, sequential, cautious — enabling manufacturers to instigate new aircraft while elevating the sector’s safety record to enviable levels of excellence. But with each generation of new aircraft the timescales have grown and costs have risen. All-new aircraft designs incorporating new technology could take over a decade to transition from launch to reaching market — unless the process of developing safety rules and ensuring compliance is extensively reconsidered.
Throughout this new symbiotic Clean Aviation-EASA collaboration, safety remains sacrosanct. Indeed, there is a saying in the aviation industry that new aircraft only receive safety certification when the weight of the paperwork equals the weight of the aircraft. At Clean Aviation, we intend to make that process paperless wherever possible, using digitization to enhance safety standards, improve certification methodologies, increase efficiency — and save trees.
The organization has therefore dedicated one of its projects, CONCERTO, to the exploration of novel certification methods and means of compliance for disruptive technologies. Its participants’ expertise in digital twins technology and digital product lifecycle management, allied with EASA’s safety competences, will ensure optimization of the certification roadmap, using digitization for simulation, evaluation and documentation.
It’s early days, but the inauguration of this enhanced EASA-Clean Aviation collaboration will enable the team to forge ahead at pace.
With this unique approach, the innovators and the regulator are now on the same team, pulling together in close teamwork to make environmentally-friendly aircraft a reality, while upgrading the safety rules in the process. Collaboratively, EASA and Clean Aviation are navigating synergistically towards a more sustainable future for European aeronautics.