Aviation Sector Leads Travel Industry on Energy Efficiency
July 29, 2009
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  • By Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.)


    As Earth Day approaches and Congress is gearing up to debate climate change legislation, it is an appropriate time to look at the progress the aviation sector continues to make on energy efficiency. Airlines, airports, manufacturers and the Air Force are at the forefront of developing better planes, technology and operating procedures to conserve fuel and reduce emissions. They are a perfect example of how innovation is driven by necessity, as fuel costs are the largest single expenditure for the airlines, accounting for over 25 percent of their total expenditures. Every dollar of increase in the price of oil adds $465 million to industry fuel costs annually. Moreover, the industry is leading the way in research on alternative fuels. Besides the positive impact on the bottom line, there are obvious positive environmental impacts from these efforts, with lessons for the rest of the country.

    Commercial aviation emissions today total between 2 and 3 percent of national output, but with passenger totals expected to increase by roughly 25 percent by 2015, emission levels could increase. Importantly, the aviation industry has shown a tremendous ability to grow economically at a faster rate than its emission levels, over 4.7 percent faster from 1990-2005 according to the Air Transport Association. Since 2001, commercial aviation has seen a 35 percent increase in fuel efficiency. How is the industry doing this? By upgrading fleets and using lighter materials, introducing new technologies to reduce drag and flying more precise routes, and putting less weight in the plane while improving ground operations to reduce idling and fuel burn.

    It bears repeating that the key factor here is that the industry is continually looking for ways to improve efficiency, not resisting the need to change. With oil at $108 a barrel, up from around $63 a year ago, the airlines have no other choice. Three carriers have declared bankruptcy in the last week, all citing the cost of fuel as a major factor in the decision. Any approach to climate change legislation – such as a cap and trade system that the European Union has proposed – must balance the need to maintain economic growth while reducing emissions. Our domestic aviation industry has shown it can do both without rigid mandates.

    And it is not just the carriers that are making an environmental difference. According to the Airports Council International – North America, airports are also taking serious steps to save energy by providing the infrastructure necessary to reduce fuel use, such as installing fuel hydrant systems to reduce fuel truck usage and employing low-emission vehicles and ground support equipment. In addition, some airports are providing incentives to people to go green, offering close-in parking for those driving hybrid vehicles. While airports provide a gateway to the world, they are exerting strong local leadership on environmental issues.

    Beyond conservation, the aviation industry is investing in the research and development of new clean energy and alternative fuel technologies. Boeing recently completed the first ever flight of a manned plane powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Earlier this year, Virgin Atlantic flew an unmodified 747 from London to Amsterdam using coconut and babassu oil. United Technologies has developed the Geared Turbofan engine, which promises to achieve a 12 percent reduction in fuel burn and an over 55 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions while considerably reducing noise.

    The Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI) was established to promote alternative fuels production for the purpose of improving our energy security. According to CAAFI, one of the best short-term options is coal-to-liquid (CTL) production using Fischer Tropsch processes, which have been in operation since the 1920s and with modern improvements can be employed more cleanly.

    I represent a congressional district that has a rich coal mining tradition and I have long supported the development of clean coal technologies. The United States has a 250-year supply of coal in the ground and we depend upon it for half of our electricity production. Given that CTL fuels can be used in existing planes and engines without degradation in performance, and that they can help reduce our reliance on foreign sources of oil, I believe that CTL production should be pursued. This is especially true with the price of oil at record levels. It is generally believed that it makes sense to produce CTL fuels at prices at or above $40 per barrel. The Air Force and JetBlue Airlines have been strong advocates of CTL fuels.

    Congress has a role to play as well. The House of Representatives last September passed H.R. 2881, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2007, which provides historic levels of funding to upgrade our national air transportation system to enable it to operate more efficiently and invests in aviation research. The bill also contains environmental provisions, including the CLEEN Engine and Airframe Technology Partnership, the Environmental Mitigation Pilot Program and the Green Tower Program, which build on the work already being done in engine and technology development and airport best practices. We are currently waiting on the Senate to consider its version of this legislation so we can proceed to conference.

    The House Aviation Subcommittee will hold a hearing on aviation and the environment next month to further examine these issues, but one fact is already clear: the aviation sector is demonstrating strong leadership in taking responsibility for reducing emissions and conserving energy.

    Costello is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

    Source: THE HILL
    Date: 2008-04-08