Let’s Talk About the Elephant in the Room: Business Aviation and Sustainability

Ten years ago, any discussion about private aviation and sustainability sounded like a distant dream. However, over the past decade, the aviation industry has made significant progress in terms of finding and implementing new green solutions. The effects of eco-pollution, strategies to offset carbon emissions, and plans to better utilise renewables are a few of the important topics that have dominated recent conversations and influenced decision-making within the industry. Private aviation has turned its focus towards sustainability, with rapid investment in new technology and environmentally conscious solutions for jet chartering that will become a standard in the near future.

Carbon Footprints, Fuel Alternatives and Eco-Friendly Private Jets

Due to the increase in safety and hygiene concerns when travelling during the pandemic, the demand for private jet transportation has grown rapidly and significantly. While private aviation works to service new customers, its increased popularity has made the industry a focus of critics concerned about the environment. But is the villainisation of aviation justified?

Aircraft transportation and all related activities make up less than 2% of the total global carbon footprint, and private jets are only a small part of this. When considering general electricity consumption globally, private aviation is making comparatively minor CO2 contributions. Still, most private aviation companies agree that the sooner we can achieve near zero emission across all fleets the better for everyone. The responsibility to mitigate the effects of a growing carbon footprint, however, will probably fall upon the individual jet owners.

There are a number of basic steps business jet owners can take to help shrink the industry’s carbon footprint. Unsurprisingly, the biggest issue is fuel. In recent years, the business aviation industry has invested in the research and development of sustainable fuel options. For example, Gulfstream Aerospace has been testing sustainable fuels for nearly a decade, which indicates a commitment to future synthetic aviation fuel (SAF) usage. In 2019, Forbes noted that 23 of the 58 private jets displayed at a business aviation trade show in Geneva were powered by alternative sustainable aviation fuel types.

What is the science behind creating more sustainable aircraft fuel? SAF is produced in a number of different ways. Popular methods of production involve the hydroprocessing of plant sources and the reuse of various oils used in the cooking industry. While many new SAF technologies are currently under development, one solution, in particular, stands out from the crowd – synthetic kerosene.

Synthetic kerosene is a promising SAF made from processing hydrogen and recycled carbon. Leading fuel companies like Shell have heavily backed the development of this hydrogen-based fuel. The UN International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) recognises SAF as an important resource to combat sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the aviation industry. In 2017, the ICAO officially adopted the “2050 Vision for SAFs” which called upon member states and other stakeholders to commit to substituting a significant proportion of fossil-based aviation fuels with SAF by 2050. 

With the mass production of electric cars well underway, we can expect to see commercial electrical flights in near future as well. Companies like Lilium are developing all-electric vertical take-off and landing saaircraft. They are currently testing a 7-seater aircraft designed for high-speed travel, announcing a planned launch for commercial operations in 2024. However, these flights will struggle to achieve long range capabilities because of the challenges to reduce the size and weight of large batteries needed for electric transportation.

Some of the industry’s best and brightest are engaging with fantastic programs aimed at the creation of hydrogen-powered aircraft. Hydrogen aircraft face a similar problem with the large tank needed to store the highly pressurised fuel source too heavy for the aircraft to travel long distances. 

While a solution for long-distance electric travel does not yet exist, SAF may provide some solutions in the medium term. We can expect SAF will be ever more present in private aviation.

Can Cabin Designs Be More Sustainable Too?

Maintaining older but very capable jets play an important role in establishing sustainability in aviation. Acquiring a pre-owned jet is the chance to breathe life into a used aircraft with the installation of new sustainable technologies, rather than purchasing a new jet. Purchasing pre-owned prevents large aircraft parts from ending up in landfills and slows the energy-intensive production of large amounts of plastics, composites, and metals required to manufacture new aircraft. Refurbishing a used aircraft and establishing proper maintenance routines can achieve so much in terms of sustainability. For example, aircraft cabin interiors can also be outfitted with various products, technology, and materials that promote green solutions onboard. We see more and more cabin designers using renewable natural fibres like cotton and wool, as well as materials derived from renewable resources such as natural latex and composite veneers. These sustainable materials are placed inside walls and furnishings or under the floors. In addition, many of the cabin components, like the divans, seats, and bulkheads can be reused and refinished. Both new and refurbished interiors today often utilise sustainable fabrics and materials which are designed to be recycled.

When it comes to the veneer in a cabin, instead of replacing it, often it makes more sense to do a “film application”. This is a relatively simple process that provides both luxurious and sustainable results that avoids exploiting a rare species of the tree simply to provide veneers for aircraft furniture.

New technologies, materials, and design philosophies are constantly being developed and implemented to decrease the overall weight of the cabin which, in turn, reduces fuel burn and carbon emissions.

Carbon Offset – Giving Back More Than Taking

A carbon offset is a term used to refer to a reduction in GHG emissions or increase in carbon storage. Business aviation has been a strong proponent of carbon offset models designed to compensate for emissions produced. These models work using the principle of reciprocity. For example, every tonne of carbon created by a  jet would be offset by a program that captures at least one tonne of carbon. Programmes may include planting trees, land restoration, safeguarding areas of the ocean, or investing in recycling development. It is very encouraging to see almost every private aviation company, small and large, conducting its own testing of new technologies and beginning to incorporate carbon offset programs into its business models. 

Camber Aviation Management CEO, Tom Chatfield emphasised the importance of the carbon offset programs: “If done properly, I’m convinced we can find solutions to mitigate the impact of business aviation on our environment. If we design our aircraft to be lighter and more fuel-efficient, incorporate SAF into our flight planning and offset actual emissions by a factor of at least 120% of the amount of carbon produced, then we will be giving back more than we take. Together with new SAF solutions and other proactive initiatives, we are already lowering our industry’s carbon footprint today. It’s not just some unrealistic promise of the future.”

The Promise of the Future in the Present

By investing in green initiatives, business aviation is signalling its dedication to becoming a much more sustainable industry. With exciting conversations happening about the development of electric jets alongside electric cars, we can confidently say that we may be getting closer to zero CO2 skies. Before criticising celebrities like Leo DiCaprio for his jet carbon footprint, it’s important to understand how private jets can actually play a role in a sustainable and green future.

Every innovation demands research and development, while true change requires persistence and a clear vision. We hope other industries are encouraged by the ever-growing investment the business aviation industry is dedicating to green solutions for a green future. It will take time and cost a lot of money, but we believe that a future with green long-range flights will soon be possible. Ten years ago, an eco-friendly jet was considered to be a fantasy. Ten years from now, it will be an inspiring reality.