Podcast: 10 Minutes About Sustainable Air Transport

Feb. 16, 2021, © Leeham News: Electrically powered aircraft. Or hybrids. Or bio-fuels. Or hydrogen.

These are the alternative suggested by environmentalists and industry to reduce carbon emissions by the airlines.

Which makes sense? Which is practical? Today’s 10 Minutes About considers these factors.


Leeham News and Analysis
Leeham News and Analysis
Podcast: 10 Minutes About Sustainable Air Transport

18 Comments on “Podcast: 10 Minutes About Sustainable Air Transport

  1. It’s not helpful to refer to “environmentalists” in this pejorative way. It implies the industry is not acknowledging the issues and/or being defensive. To address the sustainability challenges we all face – not just as an aviation industry but as inhabitants of this planet (and not just in Europe) – we all need to become “environmentalists”.

    • Who’s being pejorative about “environmentalists”? Environmentalists have been the leaders in cleaning up the earth since before Earth Day.

      And the industry is being defensive and hasn’t done a good job of acknowledging the issues. One need only look at historical IATA statements, reluctance to take smoke out of the engines in the 1960s and 1970s, adopt noise suppression, etc. Environmentalists led. Industry followed.

  2. According to the EPA, aviation accounts for 3% of the United State’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

    The United States under the Biden Administration has rejoined the Paris climate agreement, and has stated the goal that the United States will be carbon-neutral by 2050.

    If one presumes that the airline industry abides by IATA’s stated commitment for carbon-neutral growth, this means that the percentage of CO2 emissions generated by the airline industry will eventually be the majority of the United States carbon budget. For example, a 50% reduction in fossil fuel use outside of aviation results in aviation now accounting for 6% of US emissions. The US decreasing its emissions by 75% thereby results in aviation generating 12% of US emissions.

    It is for this is the reason why carbon-capture is being pursued in order to show carbon-neutrality for aviation. The United States cannot be carbon-neutral without some form of CO2 extraction and sequestration.

    The comments concerning electric aircraft are flawed in my view because it doesn’t reflect the technological disruption that electric vehicles will have on the cost structure of aviation. With electric aviation, the cost of operation is less of an issue as compared to the cost of acquisition. This might fundamentally change the business economics for electric vehicles.

    I’m reminded of Southwest Airlines original business model. I just pulled up Southwest’s 1981 annual report. The route structure for Southwest ranged from a 122nm/14o mile from Houston to Austin, 195 nm/224 mile route from Houston to Dallas, and the longest of 494nm/569 mi from Dallas to Albuquerque.

    It is not a stretch in my view to see how battery technology that improves the energy density and permits fast charging along with aerodynamic and structural efficiency improvements might advance that the current 40 mile range of an electric airplane becomes sufficient to economically fly this type of route structure. Furthermore, with the cost of fuel significantly less, it might make single pilot operation with a degree of autonomy, like that provided by Garmin’s self-landing capability, acceptable for more than the currently prescribed 9-passengers.

    I’d raise the supposition that the future of aviation might look more like the pony express or stagecoach line where one needs to get fresh horses every few miles. Fundamentally not very different than Southwest’s network of point-to-point destinations that it originated.

  3. What a major challenge for the inhabitants of Earth. Although I am inspired by this podcast and the people who have made thoughtful comments, any meaningful change that will come about will need sustained support on a national and international level. This system of having a pro-environmental government for four to eight years, followed by an oilmen administration for the same duration will not cut it. Education and the abolishment of at least some of the ignorance that passes for truth will be needed to get people to vote for candidates that want to do something meaningful. Signed, A tired and overly sensitive Environmentalist

    • Carbon emissions are down under Trump, his administration continued US efforts in technology to reduce emissions. That’s all that matters, not the spin of fact checkers. A nation doesn’t need to be in the Paris accord to reduce emissions. Why should it? A shift to Natural Gas combined cycle from coal steam was a factor but there was many others. Australia has also had great success without Paris despite its primary industry based economy and vast distances. Calling other people “ignorant” is a sanctimonious and a tactic to avoid debate and unfortunately a tendency of those wrapping their authoritarian behaviour in a green blanket. It doesn’t do any good at all.

  4. I think it would be interesting to do an article about how Hydrogen Fuel Cell Ground Support Equipment could help build the H2 infrastructure at airports. Plug Power is now in their 2nd winter testing this, and afaik so far so good. It’s the same stuff that’s powering Amazon, WalMart, Home Depot forklifts. So it’s not novel. Most of the H2 is brought in as LH2 on tanker trucks, so would be compatible with a start to aircraft H2 infrastructure.

    • Forklift H2 technology is similar to automotive, it uses supercritical hydrogen at high pressure to avoid the need for cryogenics. Same is true for the filling stations..

      That won’t work for aircraft, so different technologies are needed for LH2 under low pressure at cryogenic temperatures. Not to say it can’t be done, just needs different infrastructure.

  5. Off topic, but very interesting: more bad weather ahead for the 777X.

    This article on a Dutch-language aviation site is titled:
    “Lufthansa negotiating exchange of large widebodies for smaller planes”

    It says:
    “CEO Carsten Spohr indicated this on Monday in a webinar for the London School of Economics, according to Bloomberg. He did not indicate which planes were involved.”

    The article further indicates that 777-9s could be (partially) exchanged for more 787’s, and A350s for A330neos or A321(X)LRs.


    • The big wide-bodies may just be too risky since they can’t operate on reduced traffic on a route. Sphor was against the A321XLR for Lufthansa so would be interesting to see him turn about. A variant of the Irkut MC21 the MC21-400 with wing and fuselage stretch may hold a future. If they can handle the range from Western Europe and West Asia they would take a lot of passengers.

  6. I get the argument that aviation comprises a meaningful proportion of emissions and that jet engines burn more fuel than car engines. I haven’t seen as many arguments consider aviation’s carbon impact on a per rpm basis. Commercial aviation is one of the few popular forms of mass transit, and the carbon impact spread over ~200 customers is much smaller than the jet itself. Has anyone run any analyses estimating the carbon imprint of a mile for a passenger in a fully occupied jet versus the 1.5 people occupying a car for a mile?

    • Here is a BBC article that looks at the relative contributions:


      Basically for CO2 emissions only, a flight is better than a one-passenger car, but loses out to multiple passengers or any terrestrial mass transportation.

      If you include the equivalent warming effect due to combustion water vapor released at altitude (contrails), then flying is the greater contributor.

    • I know several people who do 75km commutes every morning and evening, in a gasoline-driven car with single occupancy. Do the math: the annual CO2 emission from each of those commutes is equivalent (on a per seat basis) to flying around the world (more than) twice in a modern jet.
      It’s great to be trying to green things up, but scapegoating aviation (à la Greta) is ludicrously disproportionate.

      • 2 things can be true at once – daily 75km solo commutes and aviation (largely unessential travel) can both be criticized. You don’t hear many people saying “nobody should drive to work” or “stop all flying”, it’s more about the excess.

      • Spain has an incredibly large number of fast trains and vast lengths of rail. More than Japan, Germany and France. The financial costs of the capital investment is so high that the loans needed to build this will never be covered by ticket sales. The fares won’t even cover maintenance costs. It’s a tragedy made of subsidies by Spanish politicians telling naive people what they want to hear. This tendency to politically and ideologically driven misinvestment is one reason Spain’s unemployment is so high. Meanwhile Spanish roads are often clogged by Trucks whereas the US, despite its perception of having a long distance truck culture, has been successful in getting goods on to rail. There is a fast train being built between LA and Los Vegas. The plan is to make a lucrative profit by connecting two large wealthy populations with each other, which is as it should be. When I fly into LA I’m going to take that train to Vegas and tip Brittany to cheer me on at the Casino.

      • “Compare these figures to data for the average family car.”

        Which country? 🙂

        Contrary to some green beliefs road coaches seem to excel at efficient transport:
        best in class: 60 pax @ 20l/100km diesel

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *