IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group III: Mitigation of Climate Change

5.3.3 Aviation

Fuel efficiency is a major consideration for aircraft operators as fuel currently represents around 20% of total operating costs for modern aircraft (2005 data, according to ICAO estimates[30] for the scheduled airlines of Contracting States). Both aircraft and engine manufacturers pursue technological developments to reduce fuel consumption to a practical minimum. There are no fuel efficiency certification standards for civil aviation. ICAO[31] has discussed the question of whether such a standard would be desirable, but has been unable to develop any form of parameter from the information available that correlates sufficiently well with the aircraft/engine performance and is therefore unable to define a fuel efficiency parameter that might be used for a standard at this time. ‘Point’ certification could drive manufacturers to comply with the regulatory requirement, possibly at the expense of fuel consumption for other operational conditions and missions. Market pressures therefore determine fuel efficiency and CO2 emissions.

Technology developments

Aviation’s dependence on fossil fuels, likely to continue for the foreseeable future, drives a continuing trend of fuel efficiency improvement through aerodynamic improvements, weight reductions and engine fuel efficient developments. New technology is developed not only to be introduced into new engines, but also, where possible, to be incorporated into engines in current production. Fuel efficiency improvements also confer greater range capability and extend the operability of aircraft. Evolutionary developments of engine and airframe technology have resulted in a positive trend of fuel efficiency improvements since the passenger jet aircraft entered service, but more radical technologies are now being explored to continue this trend.

Engine developments

Engine developments require a balancing of the emissions produced to both satisfy operational need (fuel efficiency) and regulatory need (NOx, CO, smoke and HC). This emissions performance balance must also reflect the need to deliver safety, reliability, cost and noise performance for the industry. Developments that reduce weight, reduce aerodynamic drag or improve the operation of the aircraft can offer all-round benefits. Emissions – and noise – regulatory compliance hinders the quest for improved fuel efficiency, and is often most difficult for those engines having the highest pressure ratios (PR). Higher PRs increase the temperature of the air used for combustion in the engine, exacerbating the NOx emissions challenge. Increasing an engine’s pressure ratio is one of the options engine manufacturers use to improve engine efficiency. Higher pressure ratios are likely to be a continuing trend in engine development, possibly requiring revolutionary NOx control techniques to maintain compliance with NOx certification standards.

A further consideration is the need to balance not only emissions trade-offs, but the inevitable trade-off between emissions and noise performance from the engine and aircraft. For example, the engine may be optimised for minimum NOx emissions, at which design point the engine will burn more fuel than it might otherwise have done. A similar design compromise may reduce noise and such performance optimisation must be conducted against engine operability requirements described in Box 5.3.

Box 5.3 Constraints on aviation technology development

Technology developments in civil aviation are brought to the marketplace only after rigorous airworthiness and safety testing. The engineering and safety standards that apply, along with exacting weight minimisation, reliability and maintainability requirements, impose constraints to technology development and diffusion that do not necessarily apply to the same degree for other transport modes. Some of these certification requirements for engines are as follows:

  • Altitude relight to 30000ft – the engine must be capable of relighting under severe adverse conditions
  • Engine starting capability between –50°C–+50°C
  • Ice, hail and water ingestion
  • Fan blade off test – blade to be contained and engine to run down to idle
  • ETOPS (extended range operations) clearance – demonstrable engine reliability to allow single engine flight for up to 240 minutes for twin-engine aircraft

In addition, the need to comply with stringent engine emissions and aircraft noise standards, to offer products that allow aircraft to remain commercially viable for three decades or more and to meet the most stringent safety requirements impose significant costs for developments. Moreover, a level of engineering excellence beyond that demanded for other vehicles is the norm. It is under these exacting conditions that improvements are delivered thus affect the rate at which improvements can be offered.

Aircraft developments

Fuel efficiency improvements are available through improvements to the airframe, as well as the engine. Most modern civil jet aircraft have low-mounted swept wings and are powered by two or four turbofan engines mounted beneath the wings. Such subsonic aircraft are about 70% more fuel efficient per passenger-km than 40 years ago. The majority of this gain has been achieved through engine improvements and the remainder from airframe design improvements. A 20% improvement in fuel efficiency of individual aircraft types is projected by 2015 and a 40–50% improvement by 2050 relative to equivalent aircraft produced today (IPCC, 1999). The current aircraft configuration is highly evolved, but has scope for further improvement. Technological developments have to be demonstrated to offer proven benefits before they will be adopted in the aviation industry, and this coupled with the overriding safety requirements and a product lifetime that has 60% of aircraft in service at 30 years age (ICAO, 2003) results in slower change than might be seen in other transport forms.

For the near term, lightweight composite materials for the majority of the aircraft structure are beginning to appear and promise significant weight reductions and fuel burn benefits. The use of composites, for example in the Boeing 787 aircraft (that has yet to enter service), could reduce fuel consumption by 20% below that of the aircraft the B787 will replace[32]. Other developments, such as the use of winglets, the use of fuselage airflow control devices and weight reductions have been studied by aircraft manufacturers and can reduce fuel consumption by around 7%[33]. But these can have limited practical applicability – for example, the additional fuel burn imposed by the weight of winglets can negate any fuel efficiency advantage for short haul operations.

Longer term, some studies suggest that a new aircraft configuration might be necessary to realise a step change in aircraft fuel efficiency. Alternative aircraft concepts such as blended wing bodies or high aspect ratio/low sweep configuration aircraft designs might accomplish major fuel savings for some operations. The blended wing body (flying wing) is not a new concept and in theory holds the prospect of significant fuel burn reductions: estimates suggest 20–30% compared with an equivalent sized conventional aircraft carrying the same payload (GbD, 2001; Leifsson and Mason, 2005). The benefits of this tailless design result from the minimised skin friction drag, as the tail surfaces and some engine/fuselage integration can be eliminated. Its development for the future will depend on a viable market case and will incur significant design, development and production costs.

Laminar flow technology (reduced airframe drag through control of the boundary layer) is likely to provide additional aerodynamic efficiency potential for the airframe, especially for long-range aircraft. This technology extends the smooth boundary layer of undisturbed airflow over more of the aerodynamic structure, in some cases requiring artificial means to promote laminar flow beyond its natural extent by suction of the disturbed flow through the aerodynamic surface. Such systems have been the subject of research work in recent times, but are still far from a flightworthy application. Long-term technical and economic viability have yet to be proven, despite studies suggesting that fuel burn could be reduced by between 10 and 20% for suitable missions (Braslow, 1999).

In 2001 the Greener by Design (GbD) technology subgroup of the Royal Aeronautical Society considered a range of possible future technologies for the long-term development of the aviation industry and their possible environmental benefits (GbD, 2001). It offered a view of the fuel burn reduction benefits that some advanced concepts might offer. Concepts considered included alternative aircraft configurations such as the blended wing body and the laminar flying wing, and the use of an unducted fan (open rotor) power plant. The study concluded that these two aircraft concepts could offer significant fuel burn reduction potential compared with a conventional aircraft design carrying an equivalent payload. Other studies (Leifsson and Mason, 2005) have suggested similar results. Table 5.7 summarises, from the GbD results, the theoretical fuel savings of these future designs relative to a baseline conventional swept wing aircraft for a 12,500 km design range, with the percentage fuel burn requirements for the mission.

Table 5.7: Weight breakdown for four kerosene-fuelled configurations with the same payload and range

Configuration Empty weight (t) Payload (t) Fuel (t) Max TOW (t) 
Baseline 236 86 178 (100%) 500 
BWB 207 86 137 (77%) 430 
Laminar Flying Wing (LFW) 226 86 83 (47%) 395 
LFW with UDF 219 86 72 (40%) 377 

Source: GbD, 2001.


Further reduction in both NOx and CO2 emission could be achieved by advances in airframe and propulsion systems which reduce fuel burn. In propulsion, the open rotor offers significant reductions in fuel burn over the turbofan engines used typically on current passenger jets. However, aircraft speed is reduced below typical jet aircraft speeds as a consequence of propeller tip speed limits and therefore this technology may be more suitable for short- and medium-haul operations where speed may be less important. The global average flight length in 2005 was 1239 km (ICAO, 2006) and many flights are over shorter distances than this average. However, rotor noise from such devices would need to be controlled within acceptable (regulatory) limits.

In summary, airframe and engine technology developments, weight reduction through increased used of advanced structural composites, and drag reduction, particularly through the application of laminar flow control, hold the promise of further aviation fuel burn reductions over the long term. Such developments will only be accepted by the aviation industry should they offer an advantage over existing products and meet demanding safety and reliability criteria.

Alternative fuels for aviation

Kerosene is the primary fuel for civil aviation, but alternative fuels have been examined. These are summarised in Box 5.4. A potential non-carbon fuel is hydrogen and there have been several studies on its use in aviation. An EC study (Airbus, 2004) developed a conceptual basis for applicability, safety, and the full environmental compatibility for a transition from kerosene to hydrogen for aviation. The study concluded that conventional aircraft designs could be modified to accommodate the larger tank sizes necessary for hydrogen fuels. However, the increased drag due to the increased fuselage volume would increase the energy consumption of the aircraft by between 9% and 14%. The weight of the aircraft structure might increase by around 23% as a result, and the maximum take-off weight would vary between +4.4% to –14.8% dependent on aircraft size, configuration and mission. The hydrogen production process would produce CO2 unless renewable energy was used and the lack of hydrogen production and delivery infrastructure would be a major obstacle. The primary environmental benefit from the use of hydrogen fuel would be the prevention of CO2 emissions during aircraft operation. But hydrogen fuelled aircraft would produce around 2.6 times more water vapour than the use of kerosene and water vapour is a GHG. The earliest implementation of this technology was suggested as between 15–20 years, provided that research work was pursued at an appropriate level. The operating cost of hydrogen-powered aircraft remains unattractive under today’s economic conditions.

Box 5.4 Alternative fuels for aviation

The applicability of alternative and renewable fuels for civil aviation has been examined by many countries, for both the environmental benefit that might be produced and to address energy security issues. One study, The Potential for Renewable Energy Sources in Aviation (PRESAV, 2003) concluded that biodiesel, Fischer-Tropsch synthetic kerosene liquefied hydrogen (H2) could be suitable for aviation application. Fuel cost would be an issue as in comparative terms, in 2003, conventional aviation kerosene cost 4.6 US$/GJ whereas the cost of biodiesel, FT kerosene and H2 would be in the respective ranges of 33.5–52.6 US$, 8–31.7 US$, 21.5–53.8 US$/GJ. In the and elsewhere, synthetic kerosene production is being studied the engine company Pratt and Whitney noted in a presentation (Biddle, 2006) that synthetic kerosene could be ‘economically viable when crude prices reach (up to) 59 US$/barrel’. However, any alternative fuel for commercial aircraft will need to be compatible with aviation kerosene (to obviate the need for tank and system flushing on re-fuelling) and meet a comprehensive performance and safety specification.

The introduction of biofuels could mitigate some of aviation’s carbon emissions, if biofuels can be developed to meet the demanding specifications of the aviation industry, although both the costs of such fuels and the emissions from their production process are uncertain at this time.

Aviation potential practices

The operational system for aviation is principally governed by air traffic management constraints. If aircraft were to operate for minimum fuel use (and CO2 emissions), the following constraints would be modified: taxi-time would be minimized; aircraft would fly at their optimum cruising altitude (for load and mission distance); aircraft would fly minimum distance between departure and destination (i.e., great circle distances) but modified to take account of prevailing winds; no holding/stacking would be applied.

Another type of operational system/mitigation potential is to consider the total climate impact of aviation. Such studies are in their infancy but were the subject of a major European project ‘TRADE-OFF’. In this project different methods were devised to minimize the total radiative forcing impact of aviation; in practice this implies varying the cruise altitudes as O3 formation, contrails (and presumably cirrus cloud enhancement) are all sensitive to this parameter. For example, Fichter et al. (2005) found in a parametric study that contrail coverage could be reduced by approximately 45% by flying the global fleet 6,000 feet lower, but at a fuel penalty of 6% compared with a base case. Williams et al. (2003) also found that regional contrail coverage was reduced by flying lower with a penalty on fuel usage. By flying lower, NOx emissions tend to increase also, but the removal rate of NOx is more efficient at lower altitudes: this, compounded with a lower radiative efficiency of O3 at lower altitudes meant that flying lower could also imply lower O3 forcing (Grewe et al., 2002). Impacts on cirrus cloud enhancement cannot currently be modelled in the same way, since current estimates of aviation effects on cirrus are rudimentary and based upon statistical analyses of air traffic and satellite data of cloud coverage (Stordal et al., 2005) rather than modelling. However, as Fichter et al. (2005) note, to a first order, one might expect aviation-induced cirrus cloud to scale with contrails. The overall ‘trade-offs’ are complex to analyse since CO2 forcing is long lasting, being an integral over time. Moreover, the uncertainties on some aviation forcings (notably contrail and cirrus) are still high, such that the overall radiative forcing consequences of changing cruise altitudes need to be considered as a time-integrated scenario, which has not yet been done. However, if contrails prove to be worth avoiding, then such drastic action of reducing all aircraft cruising altitudes need not be done, as pointed out by Mannstein et al. (2005), since contrails can be easily avoided – in principle – by relatively small changes in flight level, due to the shallowness of ice supersaturation layers. However, this more finely tuned operational change would not necessarily apply to O3 formation as the magnitude is a continuous process rather than the case of contrails that are either short-lived or persistent. Further intensive research of the impacts is required to determine whether such operational measures can be environmentally beneficial.

ATM (Air Traffic Management) environmental benefits

The goal of RVSM (Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum) is to reduce the vertical separation above flight level (FL) 290 from the current 610 m (2000 ft) minimum to 305 m (1000 ft) minimum. This will allow aircraft to safely fly more optimum profiles, gain fuel savings and increase airspace capacity. The process of safely changing this separation standard requires a study to assess the actual performance of airspace users under the current separation (610 m) and potential performance under the new standard (305 m). In 1988, the ICAO Review of General Concept of Separation Panel (RGCSP) completed this study and concluded that safe implementation of the 305 m separation standard was technically feasible.

A Eurocontrol study (Jelinek et al., 2002) tested the hypothesis that the implementation of RVSM would lead to reduced aviation emissions and fuel burn, since the use of RVSM offers the possibility to optimise flight profiles more readily than in the pre-existing ATC (Air Traffic Control) regime. RVSM introduces six additional flight levels between FL290 and FL410 for all States involved in the EUR RVSM programme. The study analysed the effect from three days of actual traffic just before implementation of RVSM in the European ATC region, with three traffic days immediately after implementation of RVSM. It concluded that a clear trend of increasing environmental benefit was shown. Total fuel burn, equating to CO2 and H2O emissions, was reduced by between 1.6–2.3% per year for airlines operating in the European RVSM area. This annual saving in fuel burn translates to around 310,000 tonnes annually, for the year 2003.

Lower flight speeds

Speed comes at a cost in terms of fuel burn, although modern jet aircraft are designed to fly at optimum speeds and altitudes to maximise the efficiencies of their design. Flying slower would be a possibility, but a different engine would be required in order to maximise the efficiencies from such operation. The propfan – this being a conventional gas turbine powering a highly efficient rotating propeller system, as an open rotor or unducted fan – is already an established technology and was developed during the late 1980s in response to a significant increase in fuel cost at the time. The scimitar shaped blades are designed to minimise aerodynamic problems associated with high blade speeds, although one problem created is the noise generated by such devices. The fuel efficiency gains from unducted fans, which essentially function as ultra high bypass ratio turbofans, are significant and require the adoption of lower aircraft speeds in order to minimise the helical mach number at the rotating blade tip. Typically the maximum cruise speed would be less than 400 miles per hour, compared with 550 mph[34] for conventional jet aircraft. In the event the aero acoustic problem associated with propfans could be overcome, such aircraft might be suitable for short-haul operations where speed has less importance. But there would be the need to influence passenger choice: propeller driven aircraft are often perceived as old fashioned and dangerous and many passengers are reluctant to use such aircraft.

  1. ^  ICAO Estimates for the scheduled airlines of Contracting States, 2005.
  2. ^  Doc. 9836, CAEP/6, 2004.
  3. ^  http://www.boeing.bom/commercial/787family/specs.
  4. ^  NASA, www.nasa.gov/centers/dryden/about/Organisations/Technology/Facts?
  5. ^  1 mph = 1.6 km/h