Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) has already fuelled more than a quarter million commercial as well as freighter flights. In addition, it is fully compatible with existing aircraft and fuel infrastructure. In 2019, fewer than 200,000 tons of SAF were produced globally, a tiny fraction of the roughly 300 million tons of jet fuel used by commercial airlines. If announced SAF projects are completed in the next few years, capacity will scale to at least four million tons—about 1 per cent of global jet fuel demand in 2030. As the SAF industry innovates, costs will decline. Facilities will scale, technologies will mature, and inputs such as green electricity will become less costly. Even as costs fall, SAF will almost certainly remain more expensive to produce than fossil fuel. To make SAF economically viable and scale production, several advances will be required: a supportive regulatory framework, measures to stimulate demand from corporate and private customers, and innovative ways to finance the transition. The time to act is now, as is highlighted by Philip Goh, Regional Vice President – Asia Pacific, International Air Transport Association (IATA) in an insider with Upamanyu Borah. He also points to the reputation for diversity which is a powerful recruiting tool, giving the aviation sector access to the best and brightest from everywhere, vastly expanding the talent pool companies can draw from. All these key focus areas will be important as the industry rebuilds.
OPERATIONAL CONSIDERATIONS TO PREVENT ANOTHER PANDEMIC AFFECTING AVIATION
In fact, since the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the subsequent public health emergencies – Avian Flu A (H5N1), H1N1, H7N9, MERS-CoV, Ebola – the industry has developed guidance accepted by WHO and ICAO. Coordination and collaboration had been established between the aviation industry and public health authorities in preparation for the next public health emergency.
It is due to the pre-established coordination and collaboration that the industry was able to produce and distribute guidance materials quickly in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
REGULATORY CHALLENGES MAKING THE SECTOR MORE INTENSELY RESTRICTED AND BOUNDED
What was not expected was the reaction of governments that made this an industry crisis – the travel restrictions that were quickly introduced, and the risk-averse approach to reopening international borders.
Despite almost two years of experience since the COVID-19 pandemic began, governments are still responding in a knee-jerk approach to the Omicron variant, introducing travel bans despite the advice from the WHO. That is the biggest regulatory challenge. We need governments to take a data driven approach based on medical evidence when responding to the COVID-19 crisis.
One of the things we have done is to highlight the dire situation faced by the airline industry and the importance it brings to national economies. Some governments recognised this and have been quick to provide support for their airlines and continue to provide support as the crisis had dragged out for almost two years. Australia, New Zealand, Singapore are examples.
Unfortunately, this is not consistent across the board. We have also seen governments who have failed to provide any support or have been slow to do so. It is a mixed bag.
THE MOVE TO SUSTAINABLE AVIATION IS NOW AN IMPERATIVE
The airline industry has committed to achieve net zero by 2050. Doing so will likely involve a combination of measures: SAF, new technology (especially related to new aircraft and propulsion systems), operational and infrastructure improvements, and offsetting and carbon capture. This cannot be achieved by airlines alone. We need all partners in the industry, including governments to play their part.
Manufacturers need to accelerate their research on airframe designs and electric, hybrid, hydrogen propulsion systems.
Air Navigation Service Providers need to implement route efficiencies as soon as possible. There are “wins” we can put in place now which can help to cut emissions while we await increased SAF production.
Governments have a huge role to play. This can range from encouraging R&D in radical technologies to pushing ANSPs to make the necessary route reforms.
We also need governments to work on holistic policies to ensure that the industry can utilise new energy sources.
DEPLOYING SUSTAINABLE AVIATION FUELS AT SCALE TODAY FOR CLEAN SKIES TOMORROW
SAF is proven technology. Already nearly 300,000 flights have flown on a mixture of SAF and regular jet fuel. We believe that SAF is both a game changer and the future of our industry because it can cut life-cycle emissions by about 80%.
SAF has the potential to contribute around 65% of the reduction in emission needed by aviation to reach net zero by 2050. This will require a massive increase in production so as to meet demand. Production needs to go from 100 million litres today to at least 449 billion litres by 2050.
However, the cost of SAF is a challenge. We need fuel companies to bring large scale, cost-competitive SAF to the market. Governments can support this effort by providing the right policies to promote SAF production.
HOPE IS NOT A STRATEGY, A NEW DEFINITION TO AVIATION LEADERSHIP HAS TO BE UNDERWAY
It took a shutdown of aviation connectivity to highlight the important role that aviation plays in our day-to-day lives, which is often taken for granted – how we’ve not been able to connect with our friends and loved ones, how we are poorer in terms of our life experiences gained through exploring new cultures or obtaining an overseas education, the crucial function performed by air cargo such as delivering medical equipment, PPE, vaccines, and how other industries are supported by aviation – such as the transport of seafarers in the maritime industry.
The scale and magnitude of this crisis has also highlighted the importance and need for greater collaboration and partnership across sectors in addressing challenges – such as between healthcare and transport/tourism.
If I could change or implement one thing within the industry right now that would be – reopening borders safely without quarantine but using testing and vaccination.
THE STRUGGLE TO BALANCE DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION, PROFITABILITY AND PERFORMANCE
Diversity and inclusion continue to be a priority for the industry. IATA’s 25by2025 initiative to drive greater gender equality across aviation industry will be a key enabler. Despite the COVID-19 crisis, over the last two years, we saw 40 signatories signing up for 25by2025, bringing the total to over 80 aviation related companies.
LOOKING AHEAD TO ‘THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW’ – AIRFREIGHT IN THE NEXT 10 YEARS
The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted that important role that air cargo plays in delivering essential goods – from PPE, vaccines to computer chips as well as food. The challenge is in fulfiling the demand, as air cargo capacity is still below pre-COVID-19 levels. This is being affected by the slower recovery of passenger flights, which contribute about 50% of cargo capacity.
Looking ahead, there are three focus areas for air cargo. The first is sustainability. Shippers are becoming more environmentally conscious. They are being held accountable for their emissions by their customers. Air cargo would need to meet customer expectations for the highest standards of sustainability.
The second is modernisation. COVID-19 has accelerated digitisation, and we need to build on this momentum to drive operational efficiency and meet the needs of customers. Third, safety is a priority, especially the transport of lithium batteries. IATA has launched CEIV Lithium Battery to improve the safe handling and transport of lithium batteries across the supply chain.