New Shapes, SAF And AAM Spell Business Aviation’s Future

business aircraft on tarmac

Business aircraft manufacturers may have to reinvent their industry but, at least they have a strong starting point: a growing customer base.

Credit: Brett Schauf

Sustainability logo

The National Business Aviation Association’s convention and exhibition held in Orlando, Florida, Oct. 18-20 did not offer up any major business aircraft program announcements, leaving more headline room for sustainability matters. Given its importance to the industry’s future, news about sustainability would have made headlines anyway. Along with the emergence of advanced air mobility (AAM), it is forcing business aviation to reinvent itself.

Compatibility with environmental goals is an even more pressing issue than it is for commercial aviation. Some of the general public has long perceived business aviation users as fat cats. Flying “private jets” is now being increasingly seen as unacceptable, as fuel is becoming a scarce resource in some countries. Moreover, the recent consequences of climate change have caused serious damage, such as in agriculture, and environmental pressure is growing accordingly. Some business jet advocates are concerned that the sector could be seen in the future as similar to the tobacco industry—creating harm and having to be curbed or suppressed.

  • Bombardier presses on with EcoJet model flight testing
  • SAF supply to remain an issue for the foreseeable future
  • Link with AAM has yet to be determined

The jury is still out on how—or if— business aviation and AAM will work together. Some industry watchers say they are complementary, while others hint at competition in the future.

At least the business aviation industry is building on a solid basis: Recent demand has been brisk.

The road to sustainability is being progressively plotted, from short-term to long-term solutions. For in-service aircraft, for example, Tamarack Aerospace is offering active winglets. A conventional winglet is associated to a moving surface; an active winglet dynamically responds to changing loads and conditions. It improves an aircraft’s aerodynamic efficiency by increasing lift and reducing drag. The modification reduces fuel burn and associated CO2 emissions.

Tamarack says the efficiency gains are three or four times that of passive winglets. In addition, the aerodynamic load the winglets add to the wing’s structure is controlled, making them easy to retrofit, according to Tamarack. In September, the Sandpoint, Idaho-based company announced the first active winglet retrofit of Textron Aviation’s Citation M2 Gen2.

In the longer term, new aircraft shapes may emerge. Bombardier is flight-testing a reduced-scale model of a blended wing body business jet. The configuration can reduce emissions by 18-20%, according to CEO Eric Martel. More trials have just begun with a larger version of the uncrewed vehicle, with an 18-ft. span. The location of the evaluations is being kept secret. Martel expects that business aviation customers will be open to the blended wing body.

In parallel, sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) are expected to enable a large reduction in business aviation’s CO2 footprint. Putting its money where its mouth is, Bombardier says it signed an agreement worth “multimillion dollars” with Signature Flight Support to provide SAF based on the book-and-claim system for its flight operations. Book-and-claim allows operators to buy SAF where the actual fuel is not available and still receive credit for the emissions reduction. The actual fuel will be used by someone where the SAF is pumped, so it does not have to be transported, a process that stimulates demand for SAF.

Sustainable aviation fuel truck
Sustainable aviation fuel was a major topic at the NBAA show in Orlando, Florida, and was available for showgoers landing at Orlando Executive Airport. Credit: Brett Schauf

“We are proud to be the first business aviation manufacturer to cover all of our operational flights with SAF,”  Jean-Christophe Gallagher, Bombardier’s executive vice president for services and support and corporate strategy, said at the NBAA show. The multiyear contract starts on Jan. 1 and covers Bombardier operations including production testing, certification flights, flights to completion centers, demonstration flights and service-check flights.

Fixed-base operators (FBO) serving business aviation started offering SAF, initially on a demonstration basis, in late 2020. It is being adopted gradually. In early October, Avfuel Corp. shipped two truckloads of Neste MY Sustainable Aviation Fuel to its branded FBO, Sheltair Aviation, for use by Sheltair’s customers at Orlando Executive Airport during the NBAA show.

However, business aviation faces competition from airlines for SAF production capacity. In April, biofuel supplier World Energy announced plans to increase SAF production at its Paramount, California, facility by 700% to 340 million gal. annually. The company also said it is preselling future capacity at Paramount, naming Amazon Air, United Airlines, JetBlue, Rolls-Royce and Boeing as current customers.

Engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce and Alder Fuels signed a memorandum of understanding to further test SAF sourced from biomass. The testing, which will include flight trials on a Rolls-Royce Pearl business jet engine, will evaluate the SAF produced from Alder Green Crude (AGC), an alternative to fossil crude oil sourced from regenerative grasses, forest residues and agricultural waste. AGC can be converted into SAF using the existing petroleum refinery infrastructure.

Alder refers to its product as “SAF 2.0.” First-generation SAF based on HEFA (hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids) is generated from fats, oils and grease, byproducts that are not scalable to demand for aviation jet fuel, the company points out.

In the keynote panel on sustainability at the NBAA show, participants discussed the range of solutions to drive aviation to a greener future, including SAF, electric and hybrid-electric propulsion and hydrogen. None of them alone, they agreed, will come close to being a silver bullet by 2050.

“There is absolutely no way to achieve zero carbon with large transport carriers [operated by airlines] because there is just not an option today in terms of energy density that could replace jet fuels that we are using,” Jaiwon Shin, president of Hyundai Motor Group’s advanced air mobility unit and a former deputy NASA administrator for aeronautics, said at the show. However, Shin said smaller aircraft such as business jets and AAM platforms could reach net-zero goals more quickly and help offset that.

Then there are the limitations of today’s batteries. “Batteries are tough, they’re really tough,” Erik Lindbergh, co-founder and chairman of VerdeGo Aero, said at the show. The company provides powertrain systems and engineering services to the electric aircraft industry. “And we’re starting to see that in the advanced air mobility industry. The urban air mobility industry markets are shrinking dramatically. My engineers are saying it’s going to be 20 years before all-electric airplanes are going to be able to do robust commercial missions, back-to-back. By then, we’ll have alternative forms of energy, chemical energy, new catalysts.”

Lindbergh announced the launch of an effort to create a Forever Flight Alliance Sustainable Aviation Fuels Challenge to award incentive prizes. Lindbergh’s Forever Flight Alliance will work with the XPrize Foundation to identify and create various prize challenges that address the specific barriers that prevent aviation’s acceleration of SAF commercialization. The NBAA is a partner.

The presence of AAM exhibitors at the show was evidence of their interest to business aviation users. And, at an NBAA panel moderated by NBAA President and CEO Ed Bolen, European Union Aviation Safety Agency Executive Director Patrick Ky spoke alongside Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen about AAM regulation.

But what role can business aviation play in AAM, and will it be complementary or competitive? The answer is likely to revolve around infrastructure, which is emerging as the next major hurdle as vehicles progress toward certification and the launch of operations.

Joby Aviation has a contract to provide a “home-to-airport” electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) vehicle service for Delta Air Lines (AW&ST Oct. 24-Nov. 6, p. 20). The service can begin using existing downtown heliports and helicopter routes, but Delta wants vertiports close to where its customers live and close to its airport terminals in New York and Los Angeles, to offer its premium passengers the greatest time savings.

Heliports either tend to be located away from people, to minimize noise and annoyance, or are under constant public pressure to close because of that annoyance. Private-aviation terminals tend to be across the airport from the commercial concourses, adding a ground trip into the time equation.

Joby wants to reactivate rooftop helipads for clean, quiet eVTOL operations, and Delta wants the air taxis to land on the tarmac next to its aircraft, delivering a true “home-to-seat” service. Both goals will take time to achieve. The intervening period may provide business aviation a window of opportunity.

The major FBOs will have to choose if they are going to participate in AAM, whether  through investing in electric aircraft charging infrastructure at existing facilities or leveraging their expertise in building and operating private aviation terminals.

But the risks remain high. No passenger-carrying electric aircraft has yet been certified, eVTOL or otherwise, and the operating rules have yet to be agreed on. Until eVTOL aircraft are in the hands of the first operators, public and passenger acceptance can not be guaranteed.

For business aviation players, who are facing the daunting challenges of sustainability and AAM integration, the current period may be particularly fitting for an overhaul. Last year saw record business aviation growth, and OEMs have a strong book-to-bill backlog—2:1 or 2.5:1, according to specialist consultancy JetNet.

Will the many new business aircraft users added during the pandemic remain? The consensus at the show was “yes.”

Thierry Dubois

Thierry Dubois has specialized in aerospace journalism since 1997. An engineer in fluid dynamics from Toulouse-based Enseeiht, he covers the French commercial aviation, defense and space industries. His expertise extends to all things technology in Europe. Thierry is also the editor-in-chief of Aviation Week’s ShowNews. 

Joe Anselmo

Joe Anselmo has been Editorial Director of the Aviation Week Network and Editor-in-Chief of Aviation Week & Space Technology since 2013. Based in Washington, D.C., he directs a team of more than two dozen aerospace journalists across the U.S., Europe and Asia-Pacific.

Bill Carey

Bill covers business aviation and advanced air mobility for Aviation Week Network. A former newspaper reporter, he has also covered the airline industry, military aviation, commercial space and unmanned aircraft systems. He is the author of 'Enter The Drones, The FAA and UAVs in America,' published in 2016.

Guy Norris

Guy is a Senior Editor for Aviation Week, covering technology and propulsion. He is based in Colorado Springs.

Lee Ann Shay

As executive editor of MRO and business aviation, Lee Ann Shay directs Aviation Week's coverage of maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO), including Inside MRO, and business aviation, including BCA.

Graham Warwick

Graham leads Aviation Week's coverage of technology, focusing on engineering and technology across the aerospace industry, with a special focus on identifying technologies of strategic importance to aviation, aerospace and defense.