Opinion: Why Harmonization Is Key To Decarbonizing Aviation

Deutsche Aircraft airplane
Credit: Malcolm Park/Alamy Stock Photo

Charles Darwin famously devised his theory of evolution on the Galapagos Islands, observing that finches on different islands had developed variations across beak shape, size and diet. They had adapted to thrive in their different surroundings. 

By contrast, after nearly a century of responding to increasing harmonization, modern aviation has led to convergence and standardization. Since the Chicago Convention of 1944, the aviation industry has worked toward alignment on common standards including physical infrastructure, air traffic management and flight safety.

This has led to efficiency in aircraft production and operations, promoting economies of scale that have allowed the real cost of travel to decline and passenger traffic growth to flourish. The global market for aircraft manufacturing, leasing and maintenance today centers on a handful of platforms that handle more than 80% of all commercial air traffic.

However, the global, unified frameworks that have defined nearly eight decades of commercial air travel and fed industry profit pools are at risk of unraveling. While the International Civil Aviation Organization member states last year agreed to adopt net-zero emissions as their 2050 Aspirational Goal, a rapid evolution of ecosystems specific to regions and countries with their own policies around carbon reduction has come to life.

Competing decarbonization approaches are just beginning to emerge. The European Union’s recent agreement on ReFuel EU favors prescriptive solutions for required fuel blends, and policymakers have explored mandating specific future propulsion technologies. Meanwhile, the U.S. has chosen to subsidize sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) production and invest in hydrogen through the Inflation Reduction Act. Other countries are developing and deploying a regulatory mix of carrots and sticks for the aviation industry. These differing approaches fundamentally skew the economics for airline operations as well as the investment decisions by the OEMs.

Airlines will have to respond by tailoring their fleets with fit-for-purpose aircraft with propulsion technologies that vary by region, eliminating efficiencies around having large numbers of common aircraft types. For instance, could we see hydrogen-powered aircraft in Europe, more traditional aircraft burning SAF in the U.S. and Asia and countries in between, such as Norway, adopting all-battery-electric aircraft by 2040? These subscale, specialized fleets would be more expensive to operate and require a costly, redundant fuel supply chain infrastructure, further raising the cost to airline operators and ultimately to passengers.

Policy divergence and fragmentation across regions threaten to disturb the harmony that has allowed a global aviation industry to grow and could create islands of regional aviation that arise from adoption of competing technologies. This could then lead to several disruptions across the value chain.

For instance, airframe and engine OEMs and their suppliers could see smaller production runs on individual aircraft programs yet face the same very large development costs, resulting in an unsustainable erosion of life-of-program profitability. Meanwhile, lessors could see values for the same aircraft differ considerably across different parts of the world, fracturing the global market lessors enjoy amid a rise of subscale, more costly region-focused specialists. Finally, the aftermarket-centric business models in which products are sold at low or no margin in exchange for lucrative aftermarket parts sales would rapidly degrade with subscale volumes.

Competing standards and approaches risk running aviation through an evolutionary experiment in survival of the fittest against differing regional requirements. This would threaten a global industry that has invested in new products that have reliably improved fuel efficiency by 1-2% per year on average with ever-increasing safety and reliability.

The aviation industry needs global policy harmonization and coordination to ensure green technologies can scale, not a future in which a variety of finches evolve to fly in different environments. 

Jim Harris is a senior partner in the Washington office of Bain & Co.

The views expressed are not necessarily those of Aviation Week.