A supportive policy framework is needed to reach full decarbonisation.
The European Regions Airline Association (ERA) has reminded observers of the airline industry that, while much opprobrium has been directed towards the industry in recent times, short-haul operations which are performed predominantly by regional airlines will play a vital role in moving aviation towards its carbon-free goals.
The Association stated in a November 2021 press release:
“Regional aviation has found itself at a crossroads between innovation and the political and public pressure to reduce passenger volumes, as recently there have been various announcements throughout Europe on the banning of short-haul routes in order to reduce the environmental impact of aviation. Yet, the regional sector is finding itself justifying its very purpose of existence: providing connectivity. ERA airline members connect parts of Europe where air transport is both vital and often the only mode of transportation available to inhabitants in remote regions, islands and dispersed areas.
“Further to this, the short-haul segment is creating the necessary push towards the decarbonisation of the sector, providing the testing ground for new technologies that will enable the green transition to a more sustainable industry. Electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft, for example, will be made first available on short-haul routes by 2035 and then on longer routes beyond 2050.
“Building new rail infrastructures and networks has significant CO2 impacts on the environment and is an environmental, financial and time-consuming exercise. Aviation is already advanced in its development of breakthrough technologies with limited to zero environmental impacts, and will be ready to integrate these into the market within a much shorter timeframe than it will take to build a new rail network.
“It is therefore important that the EU and Member States focus on solutions that can actually provide CO2 reductions, and not hinder the progress with initiatives like banning short-haul routes. For instance, improving air traffic management through proper implementation of the Single European Sky (SES) would lower CO2 emissions of intra-EU flights by up to 10 per cent [according to the European Commission],” the statement concludes.
Montserrat Barriga, ERA director general, adds, “Banning air routes is dangerous as it may be seen as good for the environment, but in reality, it is not for many reasons. Firstly, routes with the equivalent alternative route by train are very few and in most cases the rail network already has the market share anyway. Secondly, the initiative may result in an increase in passengers electing to use their cars to reach their destination. Thirdly, a lot of regional airlines operate routes with thin traffic, so it is unlikely that rail networks will replace sectors that are wholly unprofitable. Lastly, short-haul will be the first sector to test and deploy green technologies.
“It is therefore simply not effective to reduce CO2 emissions by banning short-haul routes and it creates a sentiment against aviation amongst the public, Barriga continues. “It is important that the EU and member states focus on solutions that can actually provide CO2 reductions, and not hinder the progress and potential of them with this type of initiative.
“Our industry takes its environmental responsibilities seriously and will do what is necessary to achieve its targets, but we cannot do it alone. We need a supportive policy framework to reach decarbonisation.”
Comment from the editor…
The ERA is right to highlight that regional aircraft will be the vehicles to introduce all-electric aircraft. A variety of turboprop replacements with 9-19 seats are in development, either new types such as the Eviation Alice and the Heart Aerospace ES-19 or as aircraft replacing engines with electric powerplants such as the Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander in Cranfield Aerospace Solutions-led Project Fresson and Cessna Caravans within the MagniX–Dante Aeronautical–Sydney Seaplanes partnership.
While the ERA predicts electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft should be available on short-haul routes by 2035 and on longer routes beyond 2050, some projects are likely to deliver sooner. A MagniX-powered Caravan has completed a number of test flights; full entry into service should happen in this decade, if the infrastructure to charge such aircraft – a sizeable task – can be achieved.
Other fuel sources such as hydrogen will follow. Alaska Air Group and ZeroAvia, for example, are collaborating to bring the latter’s hydrogen-electric propulsion technology to the 76-seat De Havilland Dash 8-400. Other projects aim to deliver hybrid-electric powerplants – most likely using sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) – creating an interim step from carbon-based fuels to all-electric power.
Geography dictates that some communities will always be best served by air. Thus, as ERA advocates, supporting these aircraft propulsion decarbonisation projects should be a priority for governments.