Green Aviation at Airbus

Reducing fuel consumption and carbon emissions through advanced engine and airframe technology

In 2015, 3.6 billion passengers were carried by the world’s airlines causing 781 million tons of CO2 emissions. The International Air Transport Authority (IATA) predicts global passenger demand to grow by 3.8% over the next 30 years which constitutes a 2.1x increase in passenger demand. While today, according to the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), the aviation industry is only responsible for 2% of human caused carbon-dioxide emissions it is critical to contain emissions and find more environmentally friendly technologies as the industry grows. If no action is taken the aviation’s share of carbon emissions will not only grow in total but also as a percentage of total emissions. Emitted CO2 in an aircraft is directly related to burned fuel. Therefore, technologies to reduce fuel consumption per passenger mile are critical.

With a 45% market share in commercial aircraft sales globally in 2015, Airbus is the world’s largest aircraft manufacturer and is heavily invested in the design and manufacture of more fuel efficient aircraft.

Airbus investment in fuel efficiency can be broadly divided into three areas: The A350 program, the A320neo program and concept studies in innovative technologies of the future.

Firstly, with the A350XWB Airbus has heavily invested in innovative composite materials (53% of the airframe) in its latest long-range aircraft program allowing a significant weight reduction of the airframe, which directly results in lower fuel burn. With an order book of 860 aircraft and already 41 in operation this will truly make an impact on modern aviation as the A350 takes to the skies.

Secondly, after selling almost 8,000 aircraft of its A320 series Airbus has now developed the A320neo (neo = new engine option), a newer and more fuel efficient version. With a geared turbo-fan engine the aircraft saves 15% of fuel. Geared turbo-fan engines have only recently been developed and are based on the following principle: An engine generates thrust by accelerating a mass flow of air. It is much more efficient to accelerate a lot of air by a small amount vs. accelerating a little bit of air by a large amount (both resulting in the same thrust). A gearbox allows the outer fan to rotate at a slower speed than the turbine in the engine core. As a result, the fan can be much larger and accelerate a larger amount of air by less resulting in higher efficiency. With more than 4,800 orders for the A320neo Airbus is working hard to keep up deliveries.

In addition to above large scale aircraft programs, Airbus is also working on several green aviation concepts of the future. For example, the company is heavily investing into electric aircraft propulsion with its all-electric E-Fan demonstrator aircraft, a one-seater currently under development that successfully crossed the English Channel in 2015. By combining the E-Fan lithium ion batteries with a combustion engine, Airbus has developed a hybrid technology that allows a reduction of 75% of CO2 emissions by passenger mile.

Beyond the design and manufacture of aircraft, Airbus is also working on innovative air traffic control (ATC) concepts under the name “Smarter Skys”. For example, current descend patterns into airports are rather inefficient not allowing the aircraft to glide. Another example of ATC inefficiencies are holding patterns at congested airports. Avoiding these can yield vast fuel and emission savings.

Going forward, while on a good track Airbus should invest more heavily into biofuels. Electrically powered aircraft are only a feasible model for small aircraft over short distances. The scale and range of modern commercial aircraft require much larger amounts of energy that are only available in fossil fuels. Biofuels are similar to fossil fuels but are made from living things such as algae or wood. They can easily be blended with kerosene and current engines can be used with no need for changes in the aircraft’s propulsion system. According to ATAG an airplane’s carbon footprint could be reduced by 80% through use of biofuels. While biofuels still cause emissions the plants and algae used to create the biofuels remove the equal amount of emissions from the atmosphere and are thereby cause no net emissions. So far Airbus has partnered with a number of organizations such as China’s Tsinghua university or Sinopec to explore possible sources of biofuels but beyond a number of test flights no meaningful progress has been achieved. Given the great potential for biofuels to reduce emissions without having to make changes to the current engine technology is a huge advantage and should be much further pushed.

With global temperatures rising the time to act is now. Airbus is on the right track to reduce CO2 emissions but pushing heavier on biofuels would allow the industry to have a more immediate impact, avoiding lengthy product development cycles of newer engines or airframes.

(797 words)–Green–Aviation-Innovation-for-2016.html


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Student comments on Green Aviation at Airbus

  1. Stefan,
    Great piece. I admire that Airbus is working on really hard problems. I wonder whether electric airplanes could also be a way forward? I saw some article a while back where Elon Musk originated the idea of a vertical-takeoff electric airplane.

  2. thanks for your comment Miras! Electric airplanes are definitely a huge growth area. In particular the vertical take-off vehicles that many startups are working on will provide efficient short-distance transportation in the 100 – 200km range. For longer distances such as international and intercontinental travel, the energy density of batteries is simply too low compared to fossil fuels to provide a feasible alternative in the foreseeable future

  3. Electric airplanes also interest me, but I am a little bit concerned about its feasibility. As mentioned in the article, electrically powered aircraft are only a feasible model for small aircraft over short distances. Then how to justify the huge upfront cost associated with developing this small sized model? Also the infrastructure at airport may also limit its application. That being said, I am still impressed by Airbus’s commitment to sustainability and I genuinely wish that it would produce more and more planes that are fuel efficient.

  4. Really fascinating post about a critical topic, as for many of us consumers (and particularly those of us without cars) air travel is our single greatest contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. While I think many of the innovations that Airbus is investing in are exciting and seem very promising, I have to wonder how much of an impact Airbus will have without committing to a target percentage by which to reduce emissions from its planes or similar type of goal. In the absence of such a goal, it seems to me that many of these projects are ultimately aimed at improving Airbus’s bottom line (decreased fuel usage translates into significant cost savings for Airbus’s customers), and could quickly be abandoned if the business case doesn’t pan out. Ultimately, though, Airbus will operate in its best interests as a for-profit corporation and can’t be faulted for that – regulation and enforcement must come from national and international aviation organizations.

  5. Stefan, great job explaining Airbus’s efforts and opportunities towards developing more efficient aircraft. How will Airbus (and its competitors) balance new technology with the long life cycle of each aircraft? When a plane can be in service for 20+ years, there’s a tension between the environmental impact of building a plane (meaning you’d want to use it for as long as possible) and the environmental cost of not using a newer (more sustainable and efficient) model. Are you aware of how this tradeoff has been playing out or what you think will happen going forward? Are airlines retiring planes sooner? Are there ways to retrofit existing planes with the new technologies? You’ve peaked my interest!

  6. Great read. I agree with a lot of the new tech airbus is using in its A350 and A320neo programs but these gains are limited heavily by customers access to capital and airbus’s manufacturing timeline. This past October the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN Body, built on the Paris treaty and created legislation limited international air travel emissions going forward at 2020 levels. With the growth in international air travel companies will need access to the new A350 asap given its the best suited for long haul routes. Currently, many of the A350s on order a positioned to replace A340s and B757/767. I am dubious of airbus’s ability to efficiently take these old planes out of service, if not we are not replacing but simply adding to the emissions. One idea is to have a trade in program where Airbus allows operators of older aircraft to trade up, and/or Airbus can retrofit old aircraft w/ newer materials to lower weight at least to mitigate in the short run. Currently several carriers will just sell older planes to low cost carriers in developing countries, a practice which expands access to air travel in the least clean way.

  7. Great piece, Stefan! With the low current oil prices, there seems to be fewer incentives motivating Airbus and other air craft carriers to move to more energy efficient technology

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