Towards decarbonised and distributed networks

Bernie Baldwin

Small will be beautiful once again, according to Guillaume Abéguilé, COO of Green Aerolease, as he outlines how aircraft with decarbonised engines will develop new air transport networks.

The revolution will start small. Yes, the move by the aviation industry away from fossil-fuel powered aircraft will begin with small aircraft, which will not only make an environmental statement, but will be able to connect remote communities more than ever before.

That’s the view of Guillaume Abéguilé, chief operating officer of Green Aerolease. “We in aviation are facing an environmental transition that is slowly happening and is bringing people closer. Travelling is the way to discover new cultures and CONNECT is a great example. In 2022, we were in Tampere and next year it will be Tangiers,” he notes.

“Going to smaller communities is really necessary for economic development. Aviation opens up those territories and is the most efficient means of transport that we have. We saw clearly, during the pandemic, that it was a way to transport trade, masks, vaccines, to bring them from all over the world,” Abéguilé adds.

The COO observes that while the aviation industry clearly wants to be sustainable, he believes it is stigmatised. However, he acknowledges the optics of the situation. “What we can agree on, or not, is the fact that carbon emissions are 3% for the aviation sector worldwide. And that will grow if nothing is done. That’s really not something that we want,” he says. Abéguilé highlights many possibilities to aid the transition to a more sustainable industry. “In the short term, we can optimise operations, such as having routes be more direct. This is important but it won’t cut out all the emissions. Also important in the very short term is fleet renewal but, again, it will not lead to 0% emission and zero emission aviation traffic,” he says.

“Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which can cut emissions by up to 80%, is an amazing reduction but, again, it’s not zero emission aircraft. We have new propulsion technologies appearing including electric propulsion and hydrogen propulsion. We already have an electric aircraft in the air with the Pipistrelle for initial pilot training. The bigger picture from this aircraft is it exists and it is driving the path to zero emissions for aviation.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has played a part in changing aviation, which Abéguilé explains has led to people not wanting to fly anymore for some of their trips. “Business customers are switching from aircraft to the video conference, and I think that all the airlines would agree that’s a big loss because they are good customers, paying the higher prices to travel,” he comments.

How can the trend be reversed? Abéguilé advocates thinking small, not simply due to aircraft weight, as that is a given, but to create a wider scope of customers with on-demand service. “This is our platform – increase the frequency of flights and access to smaller airports to be closer to the end destination of our customers and also try to address a new segment of market, all while decarbonising the aircraft,” he declares. “We have different kinds of technologies now appearing, electric propulsion, hydrogen propulsion and hybrid propulsion. It needs to be noted that while a hybrid seen by many as kerosene and electric, it’s actually just two different ways of stacking energy. We can imagine hybrid propulsion with hydrogen electricity within batteries, kerosene and sustainable aviation fuel.”

At present, the list of projects being developed using alternative fuels is extensive. “We’ve seen all the different options for use of the first one certified – pilot training aircraft, eVTOL urban mobility aircraft and then regional transport aircraft,” Abéguilé observes. “Eventually mass transport aircraft will appear later, with projects such as that already announced by Airbus. That will be between 2035 and 2040.

“We will see pilot training aircraft appear by 2024, then the first 6-9 seat passenger fully electric aircraft will appear between 2024 and 2027. Between 2026 and 2030, I hope we will have 19-passenger aircraft, fully decarbonised [entering service]. And a new aviation model will be enabled by these new propulsion technologies,” he adds.

The COO sees this new model being used extensively for regional air mobility in Europe and cites the Eviation Alice and Heart Aerospace ES-19 as potential contenders respectively in the 9-seat and 19-seat categories. “Today, we have one flight a day between two important cities offering 150 seats at the same hour each day. With the new propulsion aircraft, we will be able to have one flight say every two hours offering 19 seats between the same cities and the potential to fly to a place closer to the desired final destination. We will transport the same amount of people, but not at the same moment, so we’ll be more active to the actual demand of people,” he argues. “Regional mobility is already well developed in the US, because people are used to travelling on smaller aircraft. And I’m quite convinced that it will emerge in Europe with the appearance of new propulsion aircraft.”

Another advantage of smaller aircraft is the reduced time for boarding and disembarking. Fewer people to board means the process will be shorter. Also, smaller aircraft can be more flexible operationally, because if a flight is becoming fully booked regularly, an operator can offer a new one. The risk is small with 9-19 seats, unlike opening a new flight with 150 seats to sell. And the operator will still meet the environmental requirements.

“More airports will become available too,” Abéguilé notes. “For example, in France, we have 400 airfields and use 20 to 30 of them commercially, because [A320s and 737s] are too big to land at those with only 600-800 metre runways. With small aircraft, we will be able to fly to these new airports to deliver an on-demand service.

“Those new aircraft with new options will change airline economics. While the acquisition cost may be higher, the operating costs will be a lot lower because the cost of hydrogen will be lower than the current fuel and maintenance costs are a lot lower,” he continues. “Understanding that, how do we make this profitable for an airline? We have to fly a lot because we have to amortise the aircraft.

“Let’s come back to short-haul flights. With the decarbonised small aircraft we’ll be able to make flights of 200-400 km, which are operated a great deal at the moment, but now the flying will be done with decarbonised engines. Our new competitors will be cars,” Abéguilé posits. “For a trip of 200 to 400 km with a car however, you have to spend three hours driving and cannot do anything else. With flights on the new aircraft, you can do the same distance in much less time and a lot of people will be willing to pay to have such a flight instead of three hours.”

While advocating the use of smaller airports with these aircraft, Abéguilé acknowledges that more infrastructure will be needed and therefore much investment to ensure they are ready to support the airline and on-demand services.

“It’s a big concern,” he admits. “This transition will be made if it’s done by all the aviation stakeholders. We can’t only wait for airlines to operate decarbonised aircraft. Airports have to develop infrastructure to handle this kind of aircraft. Pilot schools have to train pilots that are going to fly those kinds of aircraft. Maintenance companies have to train themselves to be able to them. The transition needs to be global.”

As well as having electric charging facilities or the infrastructure needed for hydrogen fuelling at airports, it will also be important for some of the new aircraft types to have the autonomy to go from point A to point B and come back to point A, according to Abéguilé.

Green Aerolease itself intends to play a role in helping operators introduce decarbonised aircraft into service. “We want to help with acquisition costs, which could be a pain. We like to call ourselves a transition accelerator because we are a renting company for electric and decarbonised aircraft.

“Basically we are going to be buying aircraft and renting them to operators,” Abéguilé explains. “At the moment the only aircraft available is the trainer. We bought 50 of them of which 15 have already been deployed all over Europe. Many are currently operating at airports in France, in Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. We bring them to market with an all-inclusive rental solution.

“We are aiming for bigger aircraft in the coming years to bring those aircraft to the operators in the model of regional air mobility discussed earlier. This answers the need for companies wishing to purchase a fleet and lower the risk for our operators because we are the one taking the risk. Operators have no expensive investment requirement at the beginning to buy the aircraft and won’t own the aircraft. This is our work. We are going to finance aircraft, so let’s work together in order to bring this regional air mobility market to you,” Abéguilé emphasises.

It is certainly a goal of many countries to support their remoter communities while enabling them to remain connected. Abéguilé and his colleagues at Green Aerolease are convinced that they have found the way to do so while moving aviation away from the pariah status many have bestowed on it.

The outcome is eagerly awaited.

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