Global Village Idiot: Seat belts on please... how sustainable aviation is lining up a post-Covid take-off

Given that the global aviation industry is reeling under billions of dollars of losses, redundancies, and relentless pressure from climate-change activists to atone for its carbon-emission sins, I was delighted to find that the industry is facing up to the current decade as it always has: rebuilding with its sense of responsibility for the world intact
While the aviation industry at large has been actively investing in the development of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF), more airlines are now committing to a phased switch-over to SAF. More airports are switching to eco-friendly energy sources. (REPRESENTATIVE PHOTO)
While the aviation industry at large has been actively investing in the development of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF), more airlines are now committing to a phased switch-over to SAF. More airports are switching to eco-friendly energy sources. (REPRESENTATIVE PHOTO)
Published on Oct 08, 2021 04:30 PM IST
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By Sanjay Mukherjee

This is a busy year. A busy, busy year. Not for me, but for the aviation industry in general, for Indian aviation in particular and definitely for all those who are rebuilding aviation in a sustainable mode.

Given that the global aviation industry is reeling under billions of dollars of losses, redundancies, and relentless pressure from climate-change activists to atone for its carbon-emission sins, I was delighted to find that the industry is facing up to the current decade as it always has: rebuilding with its sense of responsibility for the world intact.

While the industry at large has been actively investing in the development of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF), more airlines are now committing to a phased switch-over to SAF. More airports are switching to eco-friendly energy sources. In June 2021, Delhi International Airport was recognised as a green airport by the Airports Council International. Also in June, Bengaluru International Airport achieved one of its sustainability goals by becoming Energy Neutral for FY2021 (it consumes power through onsite solar installations and Power Purchase Agreements from solar and wind energy suppliers).

In August, Mumbai International Airport won a CII award for energy efficiency. Meanwhile, Cochin International Airport (which had won UN recognition in 2018 as the world’s first fully solar powered airport) continues to forge ahead with environment friendly initiatives, but these are matters for another day.

Closer home, this week (October 9) a new airport in Maharashtra goes live, with Allianz Air beginning flights from Mumbai to Sindhudurg. This is hot on the heels of the recent expansion of the Shirdi airport. As I was reading about the newly developed infrastructure of these airports and the features and the facilities and the expected passenger loads and connectivity, I was excited. Sindhudurg has fascinated me since high school when I first read (in history textbooks) about the famous fort built by Shivaji. I have never gotten around to making the trip there, probably because I prefer flying to long road trips.

I don’t understand much about sustainability at an industry level, but I understand that we have to change (now) and that means making wise choices, not superficial changes under intimidation from well-meaning and genuinely concerned climate activists.

Thankfully I know dependable people who not only know sustainability, but are also involved in shaping initiatives and preparing next-generation professionals to act responsibly.

I reached out to Suzanne Kearns in Canada, who is a pilot, author, aviation educationist, new technology advocate, and now, the founding director of Waterloo Institute of Sustainable Aeronautics (WISA). Kearns has been at the forefront of what I call “applied education”. Naturally, I asked her about sustainable aviation and what she thinks is the way forward. She wrote back promptly.

“If we think back to before the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a growing flight-shaming movement. Greta Thunberg led a climate protest outside of ICAO headquarters during the last General Assembly. I was beginning to see this reflected among my young students – who love aviation, but would increasingly come to me and report that their friends ask them ‘why would you want to be part of an industry that’s contributing to climate change’ and say they should be embarrassed to be passionate about aviation,” Kearns offered as a background.

“My follow-up discussion would often point out that, yes, aviation is responsible for 2% of global emissions and we need to lean into exploring new technologies and practices to do better. However, aviation is ultimately a powerful force for good. Providing millions of jobs around the world, supporting cultural exchange, moving more than 1/3 of the world’s cargo by value (including critical medical supplies). Yet, in addition to the environmental challenges, aviation was also facing personnel shortages (pre-pandemic) and a rapid evolution of technology that we were challenged to stay ahead of. Interestingly, these align with the ‘3 pillars’ of sustainability – environmental, social, and economic. The motivation behind the WISA was that I wanted to do my part to support our sector – so I have been working full-force to mobilise the University of Waterloo’s full innovative capacity (one of the leading computer science, engineering, and environmental schools in the world). My primary goal is to support a bright future for our sector,” says Kearns.

WISA was formally launched earlier this week (October 5) and Kearns is hoping to generate momentum with industry participation since sustainable practices touch every aspect of aviation – social sustainability includes human factors, flight physiology, modern training/educational practices, equity/diversity/inclusion.

“Environmental sustainability is focused on reducing emissions (engine emissions and noise emissions) through new technologies, sustainable aviation fuel, and other practices. Economic sustainability will require wide-reaching innovations, which we’re focusing on through new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, cyber security, crew and aircraft optimisation, and many others. As a quick example, consider a study we’re working on to use artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyse ab-initio pilot skill development in a flight simulator. We hope that this evidence can further support evidence/competency-based training approaches, to justify efficiently moving more hours out of aircraft into the simulator early in training. Interestingly, when this happens it supports the 3 pillars of sustainability: 1) environmental – simulators are electrically powered so reducing in-aircraft hours reduces engine and noise emissions, 2) social – training in simulators is generally less expensive than in aircraft, and training is customised to learner needs so it better supports individual skill development, 3) economic – flight schools generally have higher profit margins on simulators than aircraft.”

Kearns opines that it doesn’t make sense for the academic sector to be only exploring theoretical challenges – it is also essential for universities to mobilise the talent they have towards directly addressing applied research challenges with a direct value return to industry and regulatory partners.

She also feels that India and developing nations where aviation is really starting to grow can contribute and benefit a lot from the experience of the developed nations.

“Similar to parts of the world that were able to ‘jump ahead’ of laying telephone wires and begin service using cellular phones, I hope that this work will directly support air transportation in developing nations by supporting practices that are best supporting environmental, social, and economic sustainability,” she says.

All of which reminded me of a Hindustan Times report in September that spoke of the civil aviation minister’s 100-day plan. I must admit I had been super excited reading about the five new airports, six heliports and 50 new routes. The Sindhudurg airport inauguration is part of that plan. Earlier this week, the state chief minister also appointed the operator for the upcoming Navi Mumbai International Airport. These are a small part of the overall investment into aviation. Given India’s strong commitment to sustainability and addressing climate change issues, I am sure there will be checks and balances within policy to ensure private operators are truly innovating while they build infrastructure and fly us into the digital age. The opportunity for us to make wise choices is as big as the opportunity to grow and develop.

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Thursday, October 21, 2021