Demonstrating Sustainability

With an airline recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic expected to take another two to three years, business aviation has taken on a leading role in driving the sustainability of the entire aviation sector.

When the pandemic hit and air travel collapsed in 2020, the commercial production of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) was still in its infancy. As passenger airlines struggled to survive, fuel suppliers switched deliveries of the limited quantities available to faster-recovering business aviation and e-commerce-buoyed cargo operators.

Now airlines are seeing demand for air travel return, and governments and industry have launched concerted efforts to scale up production of SAF from a few million to several billion gallons to meet the sector’s sustainability needs. But business aviation and the corporations that use it continue to play a crucial role by sending a strong and early demand signal to kick-start the global ramp-up of SAF.

Renewing fleets with more-efficient aircraft takes decades. Developing zero-emission electric- and hydrogen-powered aircraft will take years, as will improving the efficiency of air traffic management. SAF is the only mechanism for reducing net carbon emissions from aviation on a large scale in the near term, but in order for it to work, production volumes must increase and fuel costs reduce.

That requires demand, and this is where business aviation comes in.

“Aviation is a sector where you need to resolve the supply equation as well as the demand equation at the same time,” says Anna Mascolo, president of fuel supplier Shell Aviation. Working with consultancy Deloitte, Shell has produced a report looking at how the aviation sector can accelerate its progress toward decarbonization. It underlines the importance of corporate travel, via both commercial airlines and business aviation, to the initial 2022-25 “unlock” phase of the SAF scale-up.

As the report makes clear, many of the corporations that use business aircraft, and are major customers for airlines, have their own sustainability goals. They are under increasing pressure from investors and lenders—and in some cases government mandates—to report their emissions. “Corporate customers are seeking to meet their own net‐zero ambitions or targets through new ways of procuring air travel and cargo shipping,” the report notes.

“Your largest customers know that they must deal with the climate crisis. Whether they are those companies that have made commitments to reduce their emissions, or customers that are in the limelight in terms of using business aviation, they know that tackling this issue is crucial to their climate credibility,” Annie Petsonk, principal deputy assistant secretary for aviation and international affairs at the Transportation Department, told a National Air Transportation Association webinar on Sept. 23.

“We are pleased to see the role that the business aviation community is taking here, and the potential for the community to demonstrate demand and demonstrate the viability of sustainable aviation fuels to help scale them up,” Kevin Walsh, executive director of the FAA’s Office of Environment and Energy, told the webinar.

“We’ve seen really ambitious commitments out there in the private sector. If you're going to follow through on those commitments, and you have a corporate flight department operating these jets, this is a great way to lead, to show the demand is there. Dollars matter—that's the bottom line,” he said.

But using SAF is a challenge for business aviation because both fuel volumes and supply points are limited. So far, the fuel is available only at a small number of locations in Europe and North America. Delivering SAF to a corporate customer at an airport far from the production plant is expensive and generates emissions that reduce the overall carbon savings.

The near-term solution is a book-and-claim system that allows customers to access SAF’s carbon reductions without physically taking delivery of the fuel. SAF is delivered into the supply chain at one airport location and the net carbon reductions associated with that fuel are booked into a registry. A customer at another location can then claim that carbon benefit by buying conventional jet fuel along with the life-cycle carbon reductions in that registry.

Book-and-claim is particularly relevant to general and business aviation, where fuel volumes are smaller and spread over many locations, says Air BP. But to work, such sales need to be credible, traceable and must not lead to double counting, the fuel supplier says. Air BP has partnered with global multi-stakeholder organization Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials, which will certify its book-and-claim SAF sales and manage the registry.

The goal is to make SAF more accessible to corporate operators willing and able to pay a premium for low-carbon fuel, and help scale-up volumes and bring down costs for the entire industry. “At the end of the day, if your organization is out there making ambitious commitments about how green you are, and if you're operating these aircraft, [buying SAF] is an important way to demonstrate that commitment,” said Walsh. “It is really critical to lead in this space.”

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.