Commercial aircraft industry looks to go supersonic and super "green"

July 26, 2021
The future of air travel looks to be both more environmentally friendly and faster as the industry looks to balance consumer demand alongside environmental goals.

NASHUA, N.H. - The future of air travel looks to be both more environmentally friendly and faster as the industry looks to balance consumer demand alongside "green" goals.

Airlines for America (A4A), the industry trade organization representing the leading U.S. airlines, announced the commitment of its member carriers to work across the aviation industry and with government leaders in a positive partnership to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Likewise, Europe's aviation sector has announced the same goal, which they call "Destination 2050."

A4A members include Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, FedEx, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and UPS. Air Canada is an associate member.

A4A carriers pledged to work with the government and other stakeholders toward an expansion of the production and deployment of commercially-viable sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) to make 2 billion gallons of SAF available to U.S. aircraft operators in 2030.

This spring, the French foursome of Air France-KLM, Total, Groupe ADP and Airbus announced that they had joined forces to complete its first long-haul flight powered by SAF.

The SAF biofuel used for this flight was made from waste and residue sourced from the circular economy. Total produced the SAF from used cooking oil at its La Mède biorefinery in southern France and at its Oudalle factory near Le Havre, without using any virgin plant-based oil.

French legislation calls for aircraft to use at least 1% SAF by 2022 for all flights originating in France, ahead of a plan to gradually ramp up to 2% by 2025 and 5% by 2030, as part of the European Green Deal.

Cleaner-burning jet fuels made from sustainable sources can produce 50%-70% fewer ice crystal contrails at cruising altitude, reducing aviation's impact on the environment, according to research conducted by NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

"We know that contrail formation from jet exhaust has a larger, more immediate impact on climate than carbon dioxide emissions," said Richard Moore, a NASA scientist at Langley Research Center in Virginia. "This research shows we have an opportunity using alternative fuels to make immediate changes that could help the planet."

This spring, Alaska Airlines and SkyNRG Americas announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) committing to increased investment in SAF.

Under the MOU, SkyNRG Americas will initially focus on the development of dedicated SAF production facilities to supply Western U.S. airports. These facilities will use commercially available technologies that enable the use of municipal solid waste and other waste-based inputs as feedstocks, as well as incorporating green hydrogen and renewable energy for minimizing carbon intensity.

Hydrogen heights

In June, GKN Aerospace, based in Redditch, U.K., announced it was leading a Swedish national collaboration program called H2JET, with the goal of developing technical solutions for three engine subsystems for H2-propulsion of medium range civil aircraft. The two-year project sees GKN Aerospace collaborate with the Swedish Energy Agency, Chalmers University of Technology, Lund University, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, University West, Research institutes of Sweden (RISE) and Oxeon.

Hydrogen is expected to play a role in the decarbonization strategy of aviation as it can power aircraft efficiently, leaving water as the only by-product. Power can be generated by either direct combustion - the focus of H2JET - or by generating onboard electrical power by use of a fuel cell, the focus of GKN Aerospace’s ‘H2GEAR’ program launched earlier this year.

Bye Aerospace in Englewood, Colo., found launch customers for its all-electric, seven-seat aircraft. Jet It and JetClub announced their agreement with Bye Aerosapce this summer.

Jet It and JetClub, sister companies operating in North America and Europe respectively, have signed a purchase agreement for a fleet of eFlyer 800 and four eFlyer 4 aircraft. Jet It will operate the first fleet of electric aircraft in North America.

Slated to be in operation by 2025, the eFlyer seats up to seven passengers and one or two pilots. The eFlyer has cruise speeds of 320 knots and a ceiling of 35,000 feet.

Biggest MAX

On 18 June, Chicago-based Boeing announced its 737-10, the largest airplane in the 737 MAX family, completed a successful first flight.

"The airplane performed beautifully," said 737 Chief Pilot Capt. Jennifer Henderson. "The profile we flew allowed us to test the airplane's systems, flight controls and handling qualities, all of which checked out exactly as we expected."

The 737-10 can carry up to 230 passengers. It also incorporates environmental improvements, cutting carbon emissions by 14 percent and reducing noise by 50 percent compared to today's Next-Generation 737s.

Leiden, Netherlands-based Airbus announced in July that it has delivered the first A350 from its widebody completion and delivery center in Tianjin, China.

The center was inaugurated in September 2017 to produce A330s. Then, during the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to China in 2019, a Memorandum of Understanding on the Further Development of Industrial Cooperation was signed in Beijing by He Lifeng, Chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) of China, and Guillaume Faury, Airbus Chief Executive Officer, announcing the C&DC would extend its capability to A350 aircraft.

Going supersonic

For nearly 20 years, commercial air travel has been kept below the speed of sound, which is 761.2 MPH. Boeing claimed the mantle of having the fastest commercial jet in its 747-8I, which boasts a top speed of Mach 0.86 - or nearly 660 MPH - when the vaunted Concorde was retired in 2003. The Aérospatiale/BAC Concorde flew over twice the speed of sound.

In June, United Airlines, based in Chicago, announced it would be going supersonic later this decade. United announced it had purchased 15 Boom Overture aircraft.

The Overture, expected to roll out in 2025 with first flight planned for 2026 and delivery planned for 2029, will seat 65 to 88 passengers. At 205 feet in length, the Overture will cruise at 60,000 feet at Mach 1.7 and has a range of 4,250 nautical miles.

United also holds an option to purchase an additional 35 aircraft. The companies will work together on meeting operation requirements before delivery. Once operational, Overture is expected to be the first large commercial aircraft to be optimized to run on 100% SAF on day-one. 

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