These are tough times for any industry that burns a lot of fossil fuel or emits a lot of carbon dioxide, and the air travel business does both. The airlines never gave it much thought before, but with sky-high oil prices and mounting concern about global warming threatening not just their bottom line, but their existence, they're getting serious about reducing the industry's carbon footprint.
"They’re definitely in bad shape," says John Scholle, an economist with Global Insight. "And going forward, things look bleak."
It is against this backdrop that executives from the U.S. commercial aviation industry gather later this week in Washington D.C. to plot a new course.
The Air Transport World Eco-Aviation conference marks the first time the industry has come together on such a large scale to talk about the environment. The conference underscores the severity of the issues facing commercial aviation and the need to begin addressing them collectively and quickly.
With airline passenger growth rates and aircraft emissions expected to double by 2020 and 2030, respectively, time is of the essence.
Rising fuel prices have airlines around the world hemorrhaging money, and losses could hit $6.1 billion this year. Governments on both sides of the Atlantic are threatening to crack down on emissions. And environmentalists are lining up against an industry that, like the automakers before it, has long considered environmental responsibility an afterthought.
Commercial aviation has seen tough times before, experts say, but never before has the challenge been so great and the prospects so grim.
Topping the conference agenda is determining how big a role government should play in regulating aviation-related emissions. This is an issue of mounting importance now that the European Union says airlines must join its carbon trading program and with environmentalists petitioning the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate aircraft emissions. It is, they say, the only way to get the airlines to clean up their act.
"Market mechanisms for cutting pollution won't work," says Danielle Fugere of Friends of the Earth, the group that filed the petition.
The airline industry disagrees, of course, and says it has increased fuel efficiency 110 percent since 1978. It also claims to have reduced emissions 4 percent between 2000 and 2006, despite a 12 percent increase in passengers and a 22 percent climb in cargo. "Airlines are already motivated to reduce fuel burn and the resulting greenhouse gases as much as possible," says Nancy Young, vice president of environmental affairs for the Air Transport Association.
Much of that progress has come by replacing outdated planes with more fuel-efficient models. The industry has long counted on technology to reduce fuel consumption and says advancements in engine designs, composite materials and airframe construction will make tomorrow's airliners leaner and greener. "Less weight equals less power," says Ernest Arvi, CEO of aviation consultancy The Arvi Group. “Less power equals less fuel, and less fuel equals less pollution.”
Perhaps the biggest example of the trend is Boeing's much-delayed 787 Dreamliner, which uses composite construction to produce an aircraft the company says is 20 percent more fuel efficient and produces 20 percent fewer emissions than similarly sized aircraft. Pratt & Whitney promises similar performance improvements from its geared turbofan jet engine.
But even the most fuel-efficient airplane relies on fossil fuel, an increasingly expensive commodity. Jet fuel recently topped $150 a barrel, a price for which no airline has a business plan. That's got them pushing hard to develop biofuels. Virgin Atlantic recently made a test flight of a Boeing 747 fueled by a mixture of kerosene and biofuel derived from coconut and babassu oil. But the emphasis is on algae, led by Boeing's recent commitment to the alt fuel and efforts by JetBlue and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines to turn pond scum into fuel.
Christopher Surgenor, editor of GreenAirOnline, says algal fuel is the most promising alternative because "It has the right properties for a jet fuel and can be produced in comparatively large quantities." But others say it's too early in the game to pick a winner, and Arvi warns that narrowing the research to one field "is self-defeating. It stifles innovation."
For all the advancements in engines and airframes, the system we use for moving all those planes around is stuck in the 1940s. Airlines say replacing the radar-based air traffic control infrastructure with a satellite system would reduce fuel consumption and cut emissions by 10 to 15 percent while making the business of getting planes in and out of airports more efficient. Adopting a more efficient means of approaching airports -- called "continuous descent approach" -- would further cut fuel consumption and emissions while also reducing noise.
As promising as these ideas appear, don't look for them at your local airport anytime soon. "Next generation aircraft will begin to arrive in two to three years, but modernized air traffic control is at least a decade away," says Scholle, the analyst from Global Insight. He's even less optimistic about alt fuels. The economics needed to make it work just aren't there. "We’re at least five years away from alt-fuels being anything but a publicity stunt," he says.
And that is exactly what critics call the commercial aviation industry's push to clean up its act -- a publicity stunt. "The only reason they’re having this thing is so it looks like they care. The industry is positioning itself to look like it's addressing environmental issues, so the government doesn’t do it for them," aviation consultant Mike Boyd says of the upcoming conference. Critics said the same thing when Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Atlantic, hailed his company's experiments with biofuels.
But the industry and its defenders say there's more than green washing going on here, and to suggest otherwise is both cynical and shortsighted. "Those of us working in aviation are no different than anyone else," Arvi says. "We care about the environment and we want a clean planet. We just don't want the industry to get ruined in the process."