Don’t sideline environmental sustainability

An air transport industry in survival mode must continue to innovate toward sustainable aviation fuels, cleaner engines and other technologies. Airline strategist Asteris Apostolidis makes the case.


The global coronavirus crisis has made many of us re-evaluate various aspects of our lives, and the air transportation industry is beginning to do the equivalent. Much of the personal anxiety related to the pandemic does not derive from the present but mostly from our projections of the future, including fears about job security and the long-term economic effects of the pandemic.

In this environment, it could be tempting for the air transportation sector to think only about short-term survival and back away from an emphasis on environmental sustainability that was just beginning to emerge, though with pushback from some, before the virus struck. Backing away would be a mistake. Sustainability in aviation should not be discarded anymore as a niche topic; rather, it needs to be adopted as a core strategy, and the timing is now more relevant than ever.

The coronavirus crisis provides a shaking warning about how quickly things can go off track for businesses due to a crisis. Four months into the pandemic, the whole air transport sector remains in a virtual standstill. The pandemic is today’s crisis, but once it subsides climate change could become the next one, both in terms of environmental impacts and the changing preferences of the traveling public.

The pandemic is triggering strong reactions related to climate change. The link between the two can be attributed to the improved atmospheric quality we see with the reduction of general transport and industrial activity during the pandemic. We are all witnesses to a cleaner planet, transformed in just a few weeks, and this fact shows that an environmental recovery is possible.

With oil prices tumbling since early March to a record-breaking collapse, Jeffrey Currie, head of commodities research at Goldman Sachs, told The Guardian newspaper that the fallout of the pandemic will likely “permanently alter the energy industry” and “shift the debate around climate change.”

Indeed, because expectations drive the stock markets, funds related to sustainability performed better than conventional funds during the first quarter of 2020 that ended in March. Morningstar, a Chicago-based financial services firm, estimates that covid-19 will make the divergence between the two higher, as investors gradually see the fundamental shifts in corporate strategy.

I have read various opinions regarding a prospective recovery of the oil industry, even after a recent OPEC agreement among the world’s largest producers to cut supplies. However, there is a common denominator in the views of experts: The days of oil seem to be numbered and the only difference in views centers on how fast societies will embrace alternative fuels and energy generation.

This time frame will not be the same around the globe; it depends on a mix of geopolitics, investments, government emission targets and, of course, consumer behavior. Many of those elements are unpredictable, and some of them can act as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Before the pandemic, 72% of transportation greenhouse gas emissions in Europe were due to road transport, compared to 14% for air transport, according to the European Environmental Agency. Intense research activity is underway in Europe in all relevant scientific areas, with the objective of a net-zero carbon outcome by 2050, the goal set by individual countries, as well as governmental institutions and agencies.

The degree of progress toward that goal varies depending on the transportation domain and the particular technical impediments. For example, electrification of road transport is advancing at a satisfactory level, with the emissions depending largely on the mix of electricity-generating technologies at the local level.

Electrification of air transport in Europe lags behind road transport, however. This lag is partly because of some unique characteristics of commercial aviation.

Predominantly, developers of fully electric and hybrid-electric propulsion systems have found it extremely difficult to challenge the combination of energy density of kerosene and power density of gas turbine engines. Therefore, there is no apparent alternative to gas turbine engines for long-haul air travel.

In that perspective, the pandemic might be a challenge to business travel, which can be partially replaced by different forms of teleconferencing. For recreational travel, a global recession might cause some people to refrain from taking long and expensive vacations for a time.

The economic repercussions of the coronavirus, as deep as they are, are likely to subside before radical developments in sustainability are achieved. Rather than wait things out, we should seize the opportunity to fundamentally change some of the chronic weaknesses of our domain and emerge more efficient and environmentally conscious. The vehicle to work toward this goal is to improve our innovation initiatives, despite the surrounding crisis. We need industrywide synergies and partnerships with academia and an open discussion on the mutual benefits these initiatives can bring. After all, resilience and adaptation to the new reality are essential for the survival of any company hit by these inevitable social developments. Immediate survival must, of course, be the most imperative objective of any organization, but equally important is the redefinition of that organization’s scope and social mission through turbulent times. There are many examples from different industries where companies failed to adapt to social changes, with catastrophic results.

Transport organizations fundamentally serve the society by bringing people together and supporting the circulation of goods. This is even more important in times of crisis, such as the one we are going through. Airlines support the global circulation of medical supplies and personal protective equipment, while repatriating people stranded in all the corners of the world. This is something embedded in our fundamental scope. However, when the crisis is over, other existential questions will emerge, and the pressing environmental movement will be more relevant than ever. The response of different companies by a redefinition of their mission will affect their appeal to the societies they serve. Tough decisions will need to be made, but it is evident that only the ones that heed the contemporary needs of the general public will be able to make it to the coming years and decades.

Among my peers in the air transport industry, there is lots of discussion about the figurative day after the crisis. Are we going to be the same as an industry? No one can reply precisely to this question, but there are some indications already. Additional coronavirus outbreaks are expected before a vaccine is approved. This will have a permanent impact on the way travelers are allowed to enter foreign countries. For example, body temperature scanners might become a common practice for airports. In addition, movement tracking via smartphones is already a reality, monitoring whether people have recently visited points of outbreak. These kinds of restrictions have the potential to merge with the desire for sustainability and radically transform the way we fly.

Related Topics


Asteris Apostolidis is a Netherlands-based aviation innovation strategist specializing in sustainable technologies. He has a doctorate in aerospace engineering from Cranfield University and is the innovation strategy manager at Air France-KLM Group. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Air France-KLM.

Don’t sideline environmental sustainability