Aviation is one of the most technologically advanced and innovative sectors in the world and engineers are constantly working out how to make new aircraft more efficient.
Unlike ground vehicles, which don’t need to be fuel-efficient because they often refuel, long-distance aircraft must carry all their fuel onboard. It is expensive, heavy, and takes up significant storage. Its weight limits the range of an aircraft, and it needs to be stored in tanks which affect the wing size and reduce the maximum load.
Each new generation of aircraft has double-digit fuel efficiency improvements, up to 20% more fuel-efficient than the previous one. This has led to today’s modern aircraft producing 80% less CO2 per seat than the first jets in the 1950s. But there is more work to do.
New technologies on the horizon can significantly decrease greenhouse gas emissions from aviation, and solutions being implemented today promise further savings. Even incremental savings offer significant benefits overall.
Fuel efficiency is critical to the aviation industry’s future, not just for environmental reasons but also for financial ones. Fuel makes up over 30% of airline operating costs.
To formalise and complement the market-driven improvement in fuel efficiency, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) agreed on a CO2 emissions standard in February 2016, applying to all new aircraft designs from 2020 and newly-built existing models from 2023.
The Aviation Industry is on Track Towards Efficiency
Before the Wright Brothers, few people believed the powered flight was possible. This innovative spirit has continued, and it is driving the industry’s response to its environmental challenges. Aviation has been successful at decoupling emissions growth from actual growth. While air traffic is increasing at an average of 5% annually, CO2 emissions growth is now lower at around 3%. Like the Airbus A350 and Boeing 737MAX, newer aircraft consume on average less than three litres per 100 passenger-kilometres. This fuel is comparable to that of compact cars, although aircraft travel much further and faster. The next generation of aircraft will offer further improvements in fuel efficiency and emissions. Turboprop aircraft such as the Q400 and ATR series can provide a more fuel-efficient alternative to jet aircraft over shorter distances.
Today, engineers and researchers are making incremental and frequent improvements that offer large savings overall. For instance, the wingtip devices airlines and manufacturers install on new aircraft increase aerodynamic efficiency and reduce fuel usage.
Manufacturers are increasingly using lightweight materials such as carbon composites to build aircraft and components. The Boeing 787 and 777X, Airbus A380, A220, and A350XWB aircraft all use these cutting-edge materials and technologies to deliver exceptional environmental performance gains. Manufacturers of engines also use highly advanced materials and processes such as additive layer manufacturing to develop new engines.
Technology on new aircraft can improve fuel burn through aerodynamic efficiency (mainly airframe) or reduce actual combustion use (mainly engine-related). Combined, these elements create a new aircraft with a reduced environmental impact.
Aircraft have a useful life of around 25-30 years, during which they will cover many millions of miles and carry millions of passengers or tons of cargo. Because of the long lead times for developing, designing, and manufacturing modern aircraft, there tend to be ‘waves’ of new aircraft entering the fleet. We are currently in the middle of such a wave, with several new aircraft models coming into the system and replacing older, less fuel-efficient ones.
Which aircraft is your favourite? Let us know in the comments below!