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The many and varied discussions around aviation at COP26 in Glasgow last month neatly frames the sustainability challenge for the air transport industry. Airlines and airports were in town to commit themselves to an admirable, yet gargantuan, task of becoming carbon zero by 2050.

Despite these commitments, industry watchers remain skeptical. Cait Hewitt, policy director at the Aviation Environment Federation, a UK non-profit, questioned in a recent news article if the industry had the technology to support a genuine path of decarbonization. Others noted that it would take years to ramp up sustainable aviation fuel production and even longer to develop zero-emissions aircraft, technology which the industry are pinning their hopes on to reduce their carbon footprint.

The critics may have a valid point. The task is indeed enormous. According to Airports Council International aviation activities dominated 2-3% of global human-induced carbon emissions, with airports accounting for approximately 2% of the aviation contribution globally. These emissions forecasted to grow by 3-4% per year, tripling by 2050. IATA estimates that  by 2050, the CO2 emissions should reach 21.2 gigatons.

To tackle the industry's environmental sustainability challenge we need to start now and requires a coordinated effort from all stakeholders including airlines, airports, air navigation service providers, manufacturers, service providers and government. With commitments in place, the real work begins.

IATA has committed to net-zero carbon emissions operations by 2050. Their strategy focuses on 65% usage of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), 13% investment in new aircraft technology, and 19% usage of approved offsets, including carbon capture and storage technology.

Airports Council International have also committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions operations by 2050 by implementing various initiatives such as Airport Carbon Accreditation (in place since 2008 in Europe and worldwide since 2014). They have also introduced initiatives such as Aircraft Ground Energy System Simulation (AGES-S), a ground supply system that can provide both pre-flight electricity and pre-conditioned air to aircraft, replacing fuel-burning Auxiliary Power Units. According to ACI Europe, 235 airports aim to achieve net-zero carbon by 2050 and 91 airports by 2030.

Governments are equally playing an important role with economic stimulus packages to help promote sustainability through direct investment, loan guarantees and incentives for the private sector by developing a large-scale and competitive new green technology market.

Underpinning all these initiatives is technology and data analytics. Many of these solutions are available today and focused on addressing smart airport and airline operations. We don’t need to wait for some of the more ground-breaking technologies to get a head start on reducing our emissions. The technology we have today can deliver an immediate impact.

Data analytics – combining big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies – is a vital first to understanding the source and extent of your business’s emissions and mapping a clear path to reducing those emissions.

For example, EasyJet analyzed the demand for food on different routes and at different times of day. By understanding the patterns of how passenger consumed their meals, they were able to make a few simple changes to meal plans to reduce food wastage by 25%. Similarly,  Air France and Malaysia Airlines implemented Sky Breathe to analyze billions of records from flights to identify fuel-saving opportunities to maximize the airlines’ operational efficiency and thus minimize costs and carbon emissions. In 2019, this initiative saved more than $150 million and reduced CO2 emissions by 590,000 tons. 

At SITA we are too exploring how we can support airports in measuring and managing emissions. This month,  SITA is trialing a new emission management capability, leveraging our SITA Airport Management solution, to enable Palermo Airport to monitor and optimize emissions during landing and take-off cycles. The pilot will integrate various emission datasets to help the airport make informed decisions to drive greater efficiency in apron operations and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

And through our aircraft portfolio, we are able to help airlines reduce fuel burn and emissions using eWAS Pilot integrated with Safety Line’s OptiFlight. This solution optimizes take-offs, descent and flight paths based on historical data and real-time updates for weather, head, and tailwinds. Climb fuel savings of 5-6% are possible for each flight without affecting passenger safety or comfort, and, it’s estimated that aviation could avoid 5.6 million tons of CO2 emissions a year if all the world's airlines optimized the climbing phase of a flight.

Looking forward, a carbon-zero aviation industry will require continued investment, collaboration and innovation to create ways to bring mutual benefits and gradual shifts towards a net-zero carbon industry. As a carbon-neutral provider, SITA are firmly committed to developing new solutions and exploring new technologies to help our customers achieve their sustainability objectives today.

The industry watchers may be correct on the size of the challenge ahead of us. But working together and starting today, we will prove that we are good to our word in meeting our commitment to a carbon zero industry by 2050. 

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