Aviation’s overdue embrace of bold innovation

Walking the exhibit halls of the Paris Air Show back in 2015, I had a hankering to write a story about what it would take to build a totally climate-friendly airliner, one with roughly the passenger capacity and ranges of conventional hydrocarbon versions. Not thinking of hydrogen, I assumed that meant one powered by battery-supplied electricity, like Airbus Group’s tiny, piloted E-Fan plane, then grabbing headlines. In front of me were booths filled with executives and researchers from all the world’s leading aerospace companies. This should be easy, I thought, but I was wrong. If there was an integrated strategic communications plan on the topic, I did not stumble on it. I got the piece done after scouring deeply for presentations and sources at the small booths of research and development companies and agencies.

Most people wanted to talk about open rotor designs and larger front fans to produce higher bypass ratios and better fuel efficiency. All are important innovations, but not the revolutionary kind I was after. When I pressed to learn about electricity, one executive told a small audience that he did not expect to climb aboard such an aircraft in his lifetime, and “probably my kids will not” either. References were made to superconductivity and hydrogen fuel cell technology as promising, but many years off.

What a difference six years makes. Now Airbus will try to make a hydrogen-powered design a reality by 2025, which could be plenty of time for that executive’s children to board clean airliners by 2035. Boeing, as our cover story shows, continues to give hydrogen a close look, but sees lots of reasons to run toward sustainable aviation fuels as the best way to reduce air travel’s carbon footprint for the foreseeable future. We’re witnessing a clash of titans over how the sector should do its part, not whether it should do its part. I no longer hear the excuse that nothing needs to be done because air travel comprises just a few percent of the human influences that a scientific consensus says are warming the planet. That argument always reminded me of people who say they don’t vote because one vote doesn’t matter. In reality, votes and carbon emissions add up, and we’re all better off when more people vote and each sector works hard to reduce or eliminate its carbon emissions.

I do not know which company has the stronger case. What I’m sure of is that the debate has supercharged today’s engineering students, graduates and a host of startups to do their part to revolutionize air travel.

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About Ben Iannotta

Ben keeps the magazine and its news coverage on the cutting edge of journalism. He began working for the magazine in the 1990s as a freelance contributor and became editor-in-chief in 2013. He was editor of C4ISR Journal and has written for Air & Space Smithsonian, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, Reuters and Space News.

Aviation’s overdue embrace of bold innovation