Flight surgeons

A UK-led international project aims to research and address the environmental issues facing the aviation industry. Christopher Sell reports.


The aviation industry, a major source of economic wealth around the world, has found itself at the centre of the environmental agenda. With aircraft relying on fossil fuels and further growth at airports that operate 24 hours a day, this expanding industry is becoming intrinsically linked with climate change and global warming, noise pollution and deteriorating air quality.

The Aviation Environment Federation (AEF), a UK-based non-profit making association concerned with the environmental effects of aviation, has estimated that the world’s commercial jet aircraft generate more than 700 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Similarly, the AEF maintains that emissions from aircraft, air-side support vehicles and airport-related traffic all contribute to a build-up of potentially harmful gases such as oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and ozone. They also produce small particulates.

But with the UK hosting the second largest aerospace and aviation economy in the world, and the industry worth $200bn (£110bn) across Europe and supporting 6.7 million jobs, solutions to sustainability are paramount.

To counter this, a £5m initiative was launched last month by Trade and Industry secretary Alistair Darling to assess and identify problems and solutions for the global aviation industry. Led by the ManchesterMetropolitanUniversity‘s Department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences, Project Omega (Opportunities for Meeting the Environmental Challenge of Growth in Aviation) will bring together CambridgeUniversity, where relevant expertise is co-ordinated through the Institute for Aviation and Environment (IAE), and CranfieldUniversity, which has a long record of research into aviation issues and engagement with industry.

The partnership also includes many of the UK‘s most influential aerospace and air transport organisations including Rolls-Royce, Airbus and British Airways. They and partners from the EU, Canada and the US will assess known and emerging environmental challenges that the aeronautical and air transport industries must overcome during the next 50 years.

Over the past 30 years there has been a six-fold increase in demand for air travel. The industry also witnessed a 60 per cent improvement in fuel efficiency and 20dB reduction in aircraft noise — improvements that were driven through research focused on technology to improve efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

However, it is predicted that demand for air transport on a global scale could grow by a factor of four over the next 30 years. This in turn will bring enormous economic and social benefits, with a corresponding negative effect on the environment.

Prof David Raper, who led the development of Project Omega, is under no illusions about the fundamental aims of the project. ‘We all recognise aviation is going to grow, certainly up to 2050 and beyond to meet the demands of society and everything that goes with it,’ he said. ‘We also recognise that there will be environmental implications of that. The aim of this project is for the stakeholder community to identify those top environmental implications and for academic and industry partners to develop studies to address those.’

Whether this means developing new business models, new technology or simply assessing the effectiveness of new technology, Raper admitted it is still early days. However, he sees no reason why the established flight patterns cannot be reassessed to consider alternative approaches to the accepted practices. ‘In terms of environmental impact, we could look at different flight levels, because clearly aircraft are optimised to fly at certain levels now,’ he said, ‘so what happens when you fly at different ones? What happens if you use an alternative to kerosene?’

Raper questioned the sense of having three separate planes taking off at the same time to travel to Paris, which are two-thirds empty: ‘What is wrong with filling up one plane with all the people, rather than flying three separate ones?’

But is it just environmental concerns? Not so, according to Raper, who believes such concerns would inhibit further development, with economic implications. ‘If you consider Heathrow, it is likely that environmental issues are going to constrain its development. And in terms of the UK that is significant as it acts as a major gateway,’ he said.

Ian Poll, professor of aerospace engineering at aeronautics at Cranfield, believes Omega has the potential to address the lack of balance in the information presented so far. He claimed that lack of objectivity has to date hindered development and research into future challenges. Until now, Poll said, there has been a lack of any real authoritative, independent academic information, and Omega will make it possible to utilise the knowledge base of the UK to seize upon these issues and produce work that leads to rigorous results that can be used in the debate.

It is Poll’s belief that the root of these problems is the lack of cohesion within various academic research institutions, which is detrimental to future work. ‘We have a very substantial intellectual capacity for tackling these problems in the UK, but at the moment it is completely fragmented. We have experts in atmospheric physics, aerospace engineering and related areas, which we need to bring together, agree the priorities and initiate the knowledge transfer to the appropriate parties and set out a programme of key questions that must be answered to get the projects going that will answer them.’

With Poll leading the research at Cranfield, various options will be considered over the next few years.

Obvious candidates are weight reduction through the use of new materials and improved structural efficiency; drag-reducing technologies, such as laminated flow control using surface suction; improved lift generation through better flap designs; and improvements in propulsion efficiency — for example through the use of open rotor systems.

Like Raper, Poll is interested in challenging established aviation practice, such as the idea of flying at different altitudes to control environmental impact — current operating altitudes are the result of historical development and can be modified if required.

De-fragmenting the seemingly ad-hoc approach to higher education research in the UK will bring a further benefit: that of one voice, which will ensure that major corporations will sit up and take notice. ‘Individuals have no impact on huge operations,’ said Poll. ‘BA is not going to listen to someone at Cranfield. You have to develop credibility and the message has to get to the person in a position to make something happen.’

Project Omega is a step in the right direction for the international aviation industry. The environment agenda is becoming increasingly contentious, but collaboration and visions such as this can only provide global benefit. ‘We have been talking about the environment in an aviation context for 10 years, in which time we have done virtually nothing to solve the problems,’ said Poll. ‘And 10 years at current rates of growth is a long time to remain inactive. We cannot do that for another 10 years or problems will be upon us.’