October 29, 2007

Guilt-free flying?

These days we are all aware that air travel is bad for the environment, with the media exhorting us to stop flying, holiday locally and reduce business travel.

Yet, flying around the world is exhilarating, liberating, and enabling. It opens the mind to different cultures and ways of thinking, stimulates business ideas and trade, provides opportunities in developing economies, and builds global understanding. Above all, it is fun. Throughout history, wherever social mores have tried to prevent people from doing something fulfilling and possible, they have usually failed.

Surely the problem of ‘dirty flying’ is crying out for a technology solution, some way to travel far and fast without damaging the environment. This seminal challenge holds all the promise of a perfect market for breakthrough innovation. An airline industry stuck in well entrenched ways, engine technology that has remained much the same for decades, and a complex system of regulation that makes it tempting to break free from industry bounds. Certainly, it is a market with massive demand: consumers eager to travel but loaded with personal guilt, operators eager to shed the polluter label, and corporations ready to pay a premium for social responsibility.

There are no ready made answers here, but I have gathered below some of the ideas currently bubbling under.

Guilt-free flying

It appears that steady improvements in efficiency are likely to be the answer, rather than step change. Some of the bolder ideas, including hydrogen fuel cells, flapping wings, or solar commercial aircraft, are more than a decade away, but improvements in propulsion and materials are already at hand.

In addition, improvements in operational efficiency can have a dramatic impact – ideas such as taxiway starting grids, single European traffic control, continuous descent approach, and fixed ground electrical power are held up more by the complexities of international negotiation and politics than by technology.

The industry has geared up its promises in the wake of criticism. Richard Branson recently committed to invest his profits from travel over the next ten years into biofuels, and is trialling starting grids with airports. IATA Director Giovanni Bisignani said in June that " Air transport must aim to become an industry that does not pollute—zero emissions".

Perhaps what is needed now is an E-Prize (similar to the X-Prize for space flight). A multi-million Euro E-Prize could trigger a race to build the world’s most efficient and environmentally friendly commercial aircraft. Bon Voyage !