Flying Green- A reality in the making

Based on the predictions by the ‘Air Transport Action Group’ (ATAG), the fleet fuel efficiency will improve by 1.5% per annum by 2020 and by 2050 the net CO2 emissions would be 50% of the 2005 levels.

On July 1, 2011 all commercial airlines were given a formal go-ahead by ASTM International to use bio-fuel to fly airplanes as test flights in the past has proved that planes can fly on everything from coconut oil to jatropha. Airbus which jointly with Boeing makes about 80% of the world’s passenger planes, estimates that by 2030 plant-derived formulas could make up as much as 30% of the market for aviation fuel.

As the debate on the carbon footprint of the aviation industry is picking steam, pressure is building on the airline industry to cut pollution. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), aviation accounts for about 2% of global emissions of CO2 and by 2012 carriers with European routes will have to participate in the European Union’s ‘cap-and-trade’ system for CO2 and will have to buy additional permits if they exceed limits set by the EU. The trick for airlines would be to figure out which brew works best and then produce it in large enough quantities to reduce the cost.

As the airplane manufacturers are marshalling technology to support their bio-fuel driven turbines, India has a major role to play in the unfolding series of events owing to its climatic conditions which supports the growth of biomass. Airbus is in the process of setting up a supply hub in India for cultivation of jatropha and other plants used in bio-fuel production, while Boeing is negotiating with suppliers in South America. In India Airbus is aiming to form joint ventures and partnerships with growers, transporters and refiners to shape a bigger impact on the entire value chain. The main challenge now is to build fuel production facilities at a fast enough rate to meet the demand and this exercise may take at least three more years. It is estimated that plant-derived fuels could make up as much as one-third of the US$ 140 billion market for aviation fuel by 2030.

National Aviation Company of India (NACIL) formed in 2007 post the merger of Indian Airlines and Air India has drawn up various measures to counter the carbon footprint by reducing the fuel consumption of its fleet, which has a dual role to play. On one hand, it benefits the operator by reducing the expenditure towards fuel cost, while on the other hand it helps in reducing the total quantum of carbon emissions. The airline operators are adopting measures to reduce their carbon emissions by maintaining better operational procedures such as minimum usage of Auxiliary Power Units (APU), reduced flap takeoff and landings, idle reverse on landing, proper flight planning system, adhering to proper maintenance of aircraft, weight reductions in the form of reducing the weight of cabin equipment, catering services, avoiding carrying extra fuel on board, etc. The target for all airlines is to work towards bringing down the current fuel efficiency of their fleet close to world average and achieve the fleet fuel efficiency of 1.5% by 2020.

NACIL which operates under the Air India brand has a stated desire to be recognized as an energy efficient airline and is confident that with the optimal use of resources and the latest technology, it would be able to shape up as one of the most sustainable airlines in the world. Air India is taking major initiatives to increase its operational efficiency through effective fuel management and best practices are being adopted to overcome the threatening situation arising out of the unprecedented increase in the price of Aviation Turbine Fuel (ATF) in recent months. Air India recently invited the IATA ‘Green Team’ to undertake a Fuel Efficiency Gap Analysis (FEGA) of the airline’s operations relative to fuel efficiency and emissions reduction.  In its assessment, the IATA Green Team has predicted a potential saving of US$ 198 million per year provided the airline introduces certain changes in its operations.

According to the ‘Greenhouse Gas Inventory of India’ released by the Ministry of Environment & Forests, the transport sector accounted for 12.9% of India’s total emissions of 1,100 million tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2007 and within the transport sector, road transport accounted for the lions’ share (87%) followed by aviation (7%) and railways (5%). Air India recently signed an agreement with Pratt & Whitney to establish an ‘EcoPower’ engine wash service at Mumbai Airport. The EcoPower engine wash system reduces fuel burn by as much as 1.2% thus eliminating 3 pounds of CO2 emissions for every pound of fuel saved and this service is more valued in India as the fuel prices in India are among the highest in the World. In 2008-09 Air India registered a 12.5% reduction in fuel consumption in comparison to the2007-08 figures and while the total fuel saving for 2007-08 was 18,096 tonnes it went up to 57,381 tonnes in 2008-09 and were achieved as a result of a more efficient energy policy adopted by Air India. Air India has already submitted the European Union Trading Scheme (ETS) requirement for the annual emissions and tonne kilometre monitoring.

Taking cue from Air India’s encouraging performance, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), the regulatory authority in India, has set up an Aviation Environmental Unit to coordinate problems and provide feasible solutions to the end-users. In 2009 DGCA asked the Indian public sector oil companies to furnish data on the sale of jet fuel to commercial airlines so that it can estimate the ‘carbon footprint’ of airline operations in the country to arrive at an estimate of the fuel burn and amount of CO2 emissions. DGCA plans to use 2005 as the base year for comparison of CO2 emissions against which the growth path will be assessed.

With this systematic effort from the airline operators and the DGCA, the future of the Indian airline sector on the sustainability front seems encouraging. With major airlines like Air India and Kingfisher airlines jumping on to the bio-fuel bandwagon, the others including a slew of domestic carriers are expected to follow suit and contribute to the bulging green GDP of India.


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Author: Sandeep Roy