• Decarbonization
  • Fuel Efficiency
  • Policy and Regulation
  • Fuel Efficiency and Emerging Technologies

Creating a More Sustainable, Resilient National Airspace System: Part 6

Christian Albertson
Oct 07, 2021


The previous installments of this blog series have covered the specifics of what it would take to make the National Airspace System (NAS) sustainable. Now, let’s look at what it might take to ensure that sustainability is part of the daily operational decision-making process. 

The aviation industry has already made some progress. Since the 1950s, aircraft have become more and more efficient, reducing fuel burn by over 80%. This reduction is due to aircraft and engine manufacturers working to improve their products. Designs have changed to make aircraft fuselages more aerodynamic, and winglets have been added to reduce drag even further. Engines have been redesigned to be more efficient, producing more power per gallon of fuel. 

However, more flights are being scheduled as passenger traffic grows. In essence, while advances in technology have helped reduce CO2 emissions, more aircraft are flying, more pollution is being produced, and emissions reductions are being negated. 

The Airline Industry Requires Greater Sustainability Investment

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions using sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is costly—approximately 3-5 times more costly than standard jet fuel. These costs will likely reduce profitability unless passengers demonstrate strong preferences for sustainably powered aviation. However, SAF will move the airline closer to emissions reduction goals and keep up with competitors already using SAF. There is a slight problem with the decision to purchase SAF: current supply will only contribute to a small amount of airline emissions reductions.  

The industry needs to find ways to produce more SAF and reduce the price per gallon to competitive rates, which would increase adoption rates of the fuel. Electric aircraft or hydrogen powered aircraft technologies also need to be explored. New designs for more efficient aircraft and engines will be required to keep the aviation industry sustainable. The next generation of aviation industry employees must understand that they need to take the CO2 issue head on and work to solve the issue every day, all while training the generation after them to do the same. 

If the industry is to reach a point of being carbon neutral or producing no carbon emissions at all, the issue needs be in every stakeholder’s actions, not just their minds. Investments need to be made in SAF production plants and regulations need to be changed to allow and eventually require the use of SAF in greater quantities or more than 50/50 mixtures. US Congress has introduced a bill, H.R.741 Sustainable Aviation Fuel Act, that will ensure the place of SAF in the future of the US aviation industry. 

The smallest actions to save fuel add up, such as routing aircraft differently or changing the glidepath to reduce fuel burn. Changing aircraft tugs and baggage trains to electric, if it is clean electric, will make a difference to NAS emissions. The aviation industry is at a turning point, and creating a more resilient and sustainable NAS depends on our priorities.