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May 20, 2024
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During last week’s IATA AGM in Istanbul, the association released a series of five roadmaps on how to get to net zero in 2050. IATA stressed they are not a fixed recipe for meeting the emission targets set out during the AGM in Boston in 2021 and in ICAO’s long-term aspirational goal in 2022. Rather, they offer the latest views on scenarios that seem feasible and steps that need to be taken in the 27 years ahead. IATA’s net zero roadmaps depend on many steps.

The Aircraft Technology Roadmap covers various options on aircraft and engine technology as well as on fuel. For the well-informed follower of the industry, it all sounds very familiar. Indeed, IATA’s roadmap leans on the Waypoint 2050 strategy outlined by the Air Transport Aviation Group (ATAG) in 2020 and the Destination 2050 plan released by five European industry associations in early 2021.

Hence, the roadmap identifies evolutionary technology improvements as a means to improve airframe energy/fuel consumption by 15-20 percent and another 7 percent by 2050. A large share will come from more efficient engines with high or even ultra-high bypass ratios. Open rotors could reduce energy consumption by 5-10 percent compared to conventional engines. Aerodynamic improvements, ultra-high aspect-ratio wings, the use of more lightweight materials, simplified systems, and cockpit systems can result in the mitigation of 125-140 million tonnes of CO2.

But before more efficient blended-wing aircraft (studied by Airbus) are ready, a lot more research needs to be done. Quicker wins seem possible with the truss-braced wing design, something that is under study by Boeing and NASA.

Click to view the IATA technology roadmap for 2023-2050. (IATA)


So here is the disclaimer in the roadmap, a warning if you like. IATA says:

“While another 15-20 percent improvement in energy use in flight can be expected from the next generation of tube and wing aircraft, these gains become gradually more expensive and more difficult to achieve over time, as interdependencies start canceling out theoretical benefits. For example, ultra-high bypass ratio engines could theoretically provide a lower specific fuel consumption, but the extra drag and weight of the engine, and the associated cascade effects on the mass of the entire aircraft could cancel these benefits.”

“Higher aspect ratio wings would enable further reductions in drag, and thereby improve energy efficiency in flight, but these could be heavier, and could require larger engines to achieve the same take-off, climb, and cruise performance. Ultra-long swept wings could also move the center of gravity aft posing further challenges to the positioning of the undercarriage and the aircraft’s ground stability. These design interdependencies, including others such as safety requirements or cabin comfort are carefully studied and accounted for by OEMs.”

The report continues: “Progressive technological improvements apply over a gradually diminishing baseline number over time. In contrast, traffic growth applies to a larger number over time. For example, a 3 percent growth in 2035 represents a larger absolute growth than a 3 percent growth in 2019. This explains why emissions have traditionally outpaced energy efficiency gains for civil aircraft.”

“For this reason, revolutionary aircraft architectures are being explored which will still rely on conventional jet fuel or SAF, but which could include technological improvements to enable an extra step in the efficiency of more than 10 percent compared to an evolutionary tube-and-wing of equivalent technology levels.”

SAF and hydrogen

IATA’s second roadmap also discusses sustainable aviation fuels, e-fuels, and hydrogen. During a separate presentation on SAF, IATA said this week that progress is seen in the production capacity. In 2028, an estimated 69 billion liters should be available to the airline industry, but this is still far way off the 449 billion that is required in 2050.

While the recycling of CO2 with SAF results in a net zero reduction of emissions, zero-carbon is only possible if hydrogen or electric is used. Their application is largely for short-haul and medium-haul flights that account for only 7 percent of the industry’s CO2 emissions. Entry into service of these smaller aircraft could be possible around 2035, but IATA pushes EIS of a larger hydrogen widebody to 2045 or even further to the right. This will depend on the availability of hydrogen. In a recent study,  Transport & Environment outlined that hydrogen needs incentives to make it cost-competitive. 

The IATA aircraft technology roadmap identifies the truss-braced wing concept studied by Boeing as a potential step-change. (Boeing)

“While the effect of hydrogen aircraft on aviation global emissions will be very small even by 2040, it is possible that this will change and that a large share of aircraft will be powered by hydrogen energy by 2060 and 2070. For this to happen, there are unique technological challenges that must be overcome quickly. In parallel, the climate science of flying on hydrogen needs to develop. Experimental flights will help to understand the non-CO2 emissions of aircraft powered by hydrogen and SAF.”

These technological challenges include the development of hydrogen fuel cells and their associated thermal management, hydrogen storage (at cryogenic temperatures), and a further understudying of direct injection of hydrogen. Once this is mastered, IATA quantifies the CO2 effect of hydrogen and electric aircraft as an additional 35-125 Mt of CO2 by 2050.

Air navigation efficiencies

Double-digit CO2 reductions of up to 50 million tonnes could be realized in 2050 if air navigation operations are implemented, IATA says in its third roadmap on operations. And no, not just in Europe, where the consistent lack of progress on the Single European Sky project is blocking an easy 12 percent reduction in emissions. Ending this fragmentation in air navigation is key to reaching the emissions targets.

Comparatively simple solutions are Continuous Descent Operations (CDO) and Continuous Climb Operations (CCO) which “allow aircraft to follow a flexible, optimum flight profile while simultaneously cutting emissions and reducing noise. Free route airspace will allow air operators to fly their preferred routes without being constrained by fixed airspace structures, direct routings or fixed route networks. Surface management tools can provide more precise departure traffic planning and timely updates. Enhanced surface management will increase aerodrome throughput without compromising wake turbulence separation and other safety protocols, allowing for more optimum aerodrome operations.”

“Despite ICAO General Assembly resolution A37-11, we see only slow progress in the implementation of vertically guided approaches based on the Performance-Based Navigation (PBN) concept. Today we still have a significant number of non-precision Non-Directional Beacon (NDB) approaches. It is estimated that shorter PBN routes globally could cut CO2 emissions by 13 million tonnes per year.”

Financial and political support

As IATA stressed during the AGM, the airline industry needs full support from governments and other stakeholders to reach the targets, both from a policy and a financial point of view. On SAF, other fuels, operations, and technology. IATA estimates the costs of the transition of the aviation industry to be a staggering $5.3 trillion, or $178.6 billion each year from now until 2050. 

About one-third could be available if current subsidies for fossil fuel producers are directed toward sustainable fuels. Similar investments have been made in recent years in solar and wind energy, which makes IATA believe that the funding requirements for the aviation industry are feasible. Above all, it requires political support.

IATA thinks that aviation can meet its CO2 emissions targets in 2050 through different levers of action. (IATA)

“Without the right policies and incentives mentioned on this roadmap, all these achievements will lag. They may happen later, or they may never happen. The key to determining the delivered timeline is very much in the hands of policymakers who, above all, must not delay their action,” IATA says in the policy roadmap document.

“Policy is about setting a regulatory framework within which favorable circumstances are created for the technologies to mature rapidly and scale up successfully. This involves minimizing administrative hurdles, making private investment attractive, and accelerating all processes. (…) The aviation industry cannot decarbonize alone, and the support of regulators and policymakers on this journey is absolutely essential.”

author avatar
Richard Schuurman
Active as a journalist since 1987, with a background in newspapers, magazines, and a regional news station, Richard has been covering commercial aviation on a freelance basis since late 2016. Richard is contributing to AirInsight since December 2018. He also writes for Airliner World, Aviation News, Piloot & Vliegtuig, and Luchtvaartnieuws Magazine. Twitter: @rschuur_aero.

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