Bertrand Piccard makes no apologies for being an aviation enthusiast, and believes that despite its current woes the industry has been made a scapegoat for carbon emissions, to the point where “flight-shaming” has become a trend.
In an article published in La Tribune (paywall protected, in French) in conjunction with the Paris Air Forum, the pilot of the first around-the-world solar flight argues that while the aviation industry is currently up against a wall due to COVID and environmental finger-pointing, this particular sector is well positioned to transform itself and can eventually achieve a new pinnacle of success and allure.
Despite the bad rap, he says, CO2 emissions per passenger have fallen 80 percent over the last 70 years for a pre-COVID total of only 2-3 percent of global carbon emissions — far less than the carbon footprint of the digital services industry that includes the video streaming business meetings that are replacing much air travel.
We are already seeing significant transformations in aviation, from the increased use of biofuels among many airlines to the testing of new synfuels developed from industrial waste gases by Lanzatech for Virgin Atlantic. Highly visible development work on electric and hydrogen-powered aviation via companies such as Joby Aviation and ZeroAvia are also fueling a burst of interest and investment. JetBlue’s venture arm, for example, is strategically supporting a number of companies that are changing the footprint of the industry.
Piccard, who heads up the Solar Impulse Foundation, holds that the sector can follow in the footsteps of famous air pioneers — but the new pioneers are the engineers, researchers, technicians and pilots who will contribute their knowledge to disruption and transformation. He calls for radically different aerodynamic design, and new ways of powering aircraft. He is clear that electrification will happen, whether through advances in batteries or hydrogen fuel cells.
In parallel, he says, we need to optimize — he calls out a number of measures we can take right away. These include implementing airport approaches using a constant descent technique rather level by level, more direct routes between destinations, and flight plan optimization software that can account for fuel savings of up to 5 percent. And on the ground, towing equipment can be electrified directly from the airport grid rather than from auxiliary generators.
What can the airlines themselves do? Piccard believes they need to shoulder their responsibility and offset the CO2 from every flight by charging passengers around 5 Euros for a European flight. He thinks this would ease the reluctance about air travel for the next generations of potential passengers. Air France has already taken such an initiative for all its domestic flights. He foresees that the fee could be reduced over time as advances in carbon savings increase.
We all have a vested interest in seeing the aviation industry come back, with proper safeguards in place: it feeds employment, the tourism industry, our ability to see friends and relatives abroad, and to help us understand we are all part of the same planet.