“The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it”. Albert Einstein affirmed his conviction that the environment is everybody’s responsibility by means of this statement. The aeronautical industry is by no means an exception in this matter.
Humanity is increasingly seeking efficiency in everything it does. Good proof of this is that a growing percentage of the cars being manufactured today are hybrid or even electric cars. Governments across the world are doing their bit by encouraging the use of recycled products and more efficient and less polluting engines, as well as placing more emphasis on renewable energies. There are already several models and even specialised marques — like Tesla, for instance — in the area of electric cars.
Respect for the environment is present at all levels of the aeronautical industry, ranging from the design stage to aircraft operations.
We assume that the world of aeronautics is undergoing continuous growth, as evidenced by the growth in the manufacturing of both military and commercial aircraft and the ever-increasing number of passengers. Manufacturers and aeronautical engineering firms allocate progressively more resources to R&D programmes aimed at developing improvements in the sound pollution caused by aircraft turbines, reducing gas emissions to the atmosphere (including carbon dioxide, nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, etc.) or the use of lighter materials in their aeroplanes, to cite just a few examples. The pollution caused by airports should not be forgotten either, ranging from central heating — which still runs on coal or gasoil boilers in some countries — to the waste generated by all the services installed in them or the emissions from the vehicles used to transport luggage, staff or passengers.
How then has the world of the aeronautics addressed the issue of pollution? Some revealing data shows that aeroplanes today are 70% more silent and consume 70% less fuel than 40 years ago. These reductions are highly significant.
All the areas involved in the aeronautical industry have, however, not conformed themselves to this. Instead short, medium and long-term solutions have already been put forward. One of these involves optimising airline timetables and flight frequencies; in other words, ensuring that not so many flights are made to the same destination and minimising the number of empty seats on said flights.
Another solution that has been proposed is to reduce the cruising altitude of civil aircraft, which reduces their vapour trails. This, however, has a disadvantage, since more fuel has to be burnt due to the fact that jet aeroplanes are less efficient at lower altitudes.
Another measure that has been tabled is using ethanol (produced from biomass) in piston/propeller aeroplanes to reduce their carbon footprint. Now then, its origin resides in organic waste. This alcohol can be extracted from the cellulose contained mainly in agricultural, urban or forestry waste. The use of the ethanol spread thanks to the Kyoto Protocol.
There is a fairly ambitious European project concerning the environment called CleanSky and one of its numerous lines of work is focused on conducting research into the design of future aircraft with a view to ensuring they are more environmentally friendly. Efficiency is a priority from the standpoint of aircraft manufacturers, though the profitability criterion in these cases is also more than evident.
Very large aircraft which are also designed to be efficient and environmentally friendly are an example of this trend. This is precisely the case of the Airbus A380, which uses less than three litres of fuel per passenger for every 100 kilometres (when it is fully occupied), the lowest consumption rate achieved to date. Other models like the Airbus A350 or the Boeing 787 Dreamliner boast an extensive use of composite materials, leading to much lighter aircraft and consequently less fuel consumption.
We are also constantly obsessed by the idea that aeroplanes should be increasingly electric. The already long-lived fly-by-wire concept is now being applied to current aircraft to limits that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
To sum up, thinking about the environment is increasingly becoming a priority for designers, engineers, manufacturers, operators and airport industry managers. We are all aware that it is a sure bet and that each step we take, however small it may be, is another step in the right direction. Going back to Albert Einstein’s thought, we can be safe in assuming that the aeronautical industry is working to ensure our world becomes an ever more developed world, but also making sure that it can become a more habitable place for future generations.