What is a Sky Lane? 1 of 3 Ways China May Change Aviation

05/16/2017 09:10 am ET

Have you ever been on an airplane? Well, if you have, you’ve done something less than 18% of people in the world have yet to do.

Air travel is taking off like never before, especially in China, which is the fastest growing country for air passengers. Fortunately, there are options for that growth to happen more sustainably.

Why the Big Growth in Aviation?

Estimates show air travel will double in the next twenty years. It’s a direct outcome of urbanization and growth of the middle class. By 2030, 300 million people in China will move from farmlands to cityscapes for jobs and economic opportunity. Urbanization is a global megatrend lifting people from poverty. In fact, while today 20% of the global population is in the middle class, that figure is expected to rise to 60% by 2030. More income means more money to travel for vacation or to visit family. Bigger cities will have a greater need to connect themselves. All together it leads to a doubling of commercial airplanes to around 47,000 in two decades.

Levers for Green Aviation in China

I recently returned from Beijing where I met with aviation leaders. There is considerable interest to grow aviation sustainably in China, with three available levers:

Awareness: Action starts with awareness. Just last year, my company joined Hainan Airlines (the largest non-government run airline in China) to launch the Green Aviation Initiative and Network. Participants include airplane builders, airlines, airports, aerospace component manufacturers and universities. Even the United Nations and governments of China and the U.S. are involved. After two large stakeholder conferences in China and the release of a green aviation white paper, the network has already engaged 600 professionals and earned more than 900 media reports. It’s providing the platform for greater awareness on sustainability issues for aviation.

Technology: Technologies will clearly support green aviation in China, like new jet engines. My company spent $11 billion bringing to market the new Geared Turbofan™ for commercial airplanes that lowers fuel burn by 16%, particulate emissions by 50% and the noise footprint by 75%. Even at today’s lower fuel prices, it reduces fuel costs on average $1 million per airplane per year. Alternative fuel technologies that are less carbon-emitting than traditional jet fuel, such as biofuels, also hold promise. In fact, the carbon footprint of aviation could be reduced by 80% if only biofuels were used. We’re a long way from affordable biofuels at sufficient quantities, but airlines around the world are starting to use biofuels for some routes, including Hainan Airlines in China.

Operations: Despite being a big place, I learned that the sky lanes available for commercial aviation in China are already quite crowded. This is because only a minority of Chinese airspace has been opened for commercial air travel, while the majority remains restricted. Organizations like the U.S.-China Aviation Cooperation Program are encouraging the opening of more airspace to accommodate the rapid rise in Chinese air travel.

This would have three benefits for sustainability, because more space in the air would:

  1. Lead to fewer delays on the ground, which means less fuel burned by airplanes with shorter runway wait times
  2. Allow more airplanes to quickly climb at take-off above 20,000 feet to rise literally into thinner air where less fuel is burned; and
  3. Give pilots greater flight path flexibility to avoid stronger headwinds that force more fuel to be burned.

As the world’s airlines prepare to meet the UN’s new carbon reduction requirements in 2020, it’s good to know the options are coming together in China and around the world for aviation to grow much more sustainably.

Tweet me @JohnMandyck to continue the conversation.

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