Eco-Friendly Air Travel


British Airways is just one of many airlines exploring new fuel alternatives

Progress in green travel for the airline industry remains slow compared to steps taken in the auto and hotel industries. Airlines didn’t begin to aggressively explore alternatives until jet fuel costs skyrocketed in 2008.

In July 2008, British Airways and Rolls-Royce announced a scientific test program to identify practical alternatives to kerosene, with potential to reduce aircraft carbon footprints.

“We announced a further 25 percent improvement target on fuel efficiency by 2025 compared with 2005,” said Jonathon Counsell, head of environment at British Airways. “Should the tests we are undertaking with Rolls-Royce be successful, the potential for bringing us closer to a greener fuel alternative that will help the aviation industry reduce its carbon footprint is enormous.”

The companies invited suppliers to bring alternative fuel samples for testing on a Rolls-Royce RB211 engine from a British Airways Boeing 747 at the Rolls-Royce facility in Derby, UK. The controlled environment of a Rolls-Royce test bed gathered more accurate data than from an actual flight due to additional instrumentation that was used, while performance and emissions weren’t affected by external factors.

Meanwhile, in December 2008, Air New Zealand tested a Boeing 747-400 in which one engine contained a 50-50 mix of standard jet fuel and oil from the crushed seeds of jatropha, a fruit indigenous to South America, Africa and Asia. The two-hour flight out of Auckland was the first to use second-generation biofuels (those that use plants instead of fuels, such as ethanol).

Continental Airlines, Virgin Atlantic and Japan Airlines (JAL) carried out similar tests shortly after Air New Zealand, using different mixes. In January, a Continental two-hour flight over Houston used a Boeing 737 twin-engine partially powered by a biofuel composed of algae and jatropha. In February, Virgin Atlantic tested a London-to-Amsterdam flight that included a mixture of coconut oil and babassu oil in one of the four main fuel tanks. Across the Pacific, JAL tested a Boeing 747-300 in which one of the four engines was powered by a 50-50 mix of kerosene and a biofuel primarily refined from camelina, jatropha and algae.

In addition to ensuring the safety and functionality of these biofuels, engineers and scientists are investigating the sustainability of such plants and the environmental impact of producing commercially quantifiable amounts of them.

“It is critical that the fuel not only do the job required of it, but can also offer a carbon dioxide benefit and be produced without a detrimental impact to food, land or water,” said Ric Parker, director of research and technology at Rolls-Royce. “There must also be clear evidence of the potential for mass production and global distribution of an alternative fuel to support the world’s aviation industry.”

As airlines continue these initiatives, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) keeps up the pressure with a four-pillar strategy: investing in technology, flying planes effectively, building efficient infrastructure and using positive economic measures.

“The strategy is delivering results,” said Giovanni Bisignani, IATA’s CEO, in January. “Airlines are investing in fuel-efficient aircraft and retiring old ones. The numbers are impressive. In the first 11 months of 2008, 1,037 new aircraft—with improved fuel efficiencies of 20 to 30 percent—were delivered.”                       

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