Since the EU published its “Fit for 55” aviation proposals and the UK Government published its Decarbonising Transport Plan in July, the focus on aviation decarbonisation has only intensified as we approach the start of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (“COP26”) in Glasgow on 31 October. This article offers a brief round-up of some (but by no means all) of the progress seen in the market on this topic since the summer.

  • Demonstrating the importance of cooperation amongst all key stakeholders and just how much can be achieved even in the absence of ground-breaking new technology still under development, British Airways operated a carbon neutral “perfect flight” between London and Glasgow in September and achieved a 62% CO² emissions reduction compared with a similar flight British Airways operated in 2010 – through a combination of more efficient aircraft and operations, making use of sustainable aviation fuel and offsetting residual emissions.
  • At the Airbus Summit 2021 in September, the European manufacturer revealed three zero emission concept ZEROe aircraft and sounded increasingly confident it could put the world’s first climate-neutral, zero-emission commercial aircraft into service by 2035. It also announced a collaboration with Air Liquide and VINCI Airports to promote the use of hydrogen at airports and build the European airport network to accommodate future hydrogen-powered aircraft.
  • Global airlines resolved at the 77th IATA Annual General Meeting in early October to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. IATA urged an industry-wide collective effort and called on governments to support the sector in achieving net zero by 2050.
  • The increased use of sustainable aviation fuels (“SAFs”) was a key focus of the IATA announcement. In recent weeks Delta Air Lines, JetBlue and United Airlines have each announced agreements for the supply of SAFs, Italy’s Eni announced the launch of SAF production, joining a range of energy companies now producing SAF, and the UK Government announced £180 million of support for SAF development. In a significant technical development, Rolls-Royce completed a successful test flight of their Boeing 747 testbed fitted with a Trent 1000 engine running solely on 100% unblended SAF (at present, aircraft engines cannot run solely on 100% unblended SAF). SAF was used at London Gatwick Airport for the first time, and it was announced that SAF would be used on all easyJet flights operating to Glasgow from London Gatwick throughout COP26.
  • There have also been further milestones in the development of electric aircraft. Rolls-Royce successfully flew its first all-electric aircraft – the “Spirit of Innovation” – on a 15 minute test flight in September. Leasing company Avolon (through its investment and innovation affiliate Avolon-e) announced a partnership with Japan Airlines to introduce an eVTOL ride sharing business in Japan (with the right for the airline to purchase or lease up to 50 Vertical VA-X4 eVTOL aircraft from Avolon, with the option to purchase or lease up to 50 additional units). The market reacted strongly to a similar eVTOL announcement by Embraer and Bristow Group. 2025 to 2026 seems to be a common target for entry into service of passenger carrying all-electric aircraft, although at the moment this is limited to the four or five passenger “sky taxi” sector. In the cargo sector, in August DHL Express ordered 12 all-electric Alice eCargo aircraft, designed to operate on short routes currently serviced by piston and turbine aircraft. The aircraft are expected to be delivered in 2024.

Eye-catching announcements relating to aviation decarbonisation are now an encouragingly regular occurrence, and we expect to see further announcements as COP26 gives the industry a platform to demonstrate its commitment to decarbonisation.

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