Sustainability in aviation: European initiatives for more environmental protection

Air traffic is responsible for 2.8% of the global artificial CO2 emissions. If we take into account the additional nitrogen oxides and the still unexplained influence of condensation trails on radiation into and out of the atmosphere, the factor would have to be as much as 3-5 times higher. The good news is that the effect that can be achieved by altering the system is significantly greater. With initiatives, such as the outsourcing of short-haul routes to rail, Single European Sky or Destination 2050, there is a lot of momentum in the industry.

Car, bus, train or flight: a question of framework conditions and infrastructure

The decision which form of transportation is the most eco-friendly is not as easy to answer objectively as one would hope. According to the Federal Environment Agency’s statistics for 2019, a car consumes an average of 154 g of CO2 per person-kilometre, while an aeroplane with a load factor of 70 per cent comes to over 200 g for a short flight. For medium-distance journeys (e.g. between destinations within Europe), a lower consumption of 180 g per person-kilometre is estimated, and for long-distance journeys even just 91 g. If you use ground-based means of transport, you have to plan for a significant loss of time, especially for domestic connections. A good railway infrastructure can compensate for this. Prime examples are the connection from Strasbourg to Paris in 1:45 h (500 kilometres) and from Madrid to Barcelona in 2:30 h (670 kilometres). However, comfort and time savings usually prevail if the short-haul flight is a feeder to a long-haul route. Moreover, not all international airports are connected to the long-distance network, Munich being the best example. Actually, we are seeing more airlines cooperating with train services, to build a new network of connections to their hub-airports and bringing short haul flight to the track. Swiss for example is currently launching an international train link with their Swiss air-rail service, connecting Munich main station directly to Zurich airport. And there are some more exciting initiatives in Europe that I would like to touch on briefly.

Single European Sky: One Europe, One Sky

Just like national borders, airspace borders have grown historically. Since the late 1990s, the European Commission has been working on restructuring European airspace with a view to optimising traffic flows. The aim is to create Functional Airspace Blocks (FABs) and dissolve the fragmentation caused by national borders and interests. The current challenge: if you for example fly from Stockholm to Prague on a straight and thus direct route, you cross the German and Polish airspace several times. Now you have the choice between flying only in German airspace with a smaller diversion or only in Polish airspace with a larger diversion, but German air traffic control is more expensive. The most efficient, direct routes can only be used by homogenising the airspaces and the associated airspace charges. Thus, considerable savings in paraffin of up to 10 per cent and a reduction in flight times can be achieved. Only by homogenising airspace and the associated airspace charges can the most efficient, direct routes be used. Thus, considerable savings in paraffin of up to 10 per cent as well as a reduction in flight times are achievable.

Destination 2050: Ambitious goals of the European aviation sector

In line with IATA’s (International Air Transport Association) “Net-Zero Carbon Emissions by 2050” programme, the European aviation industry is also pursuing ambitious sustainability goals with the aim of achieving CO2 neutrality. By 2050, it is estimated that about 10 billion passengers will be transported worldwide per year – compared to about 4 billion before COVID. The CO2 cuts are to be achieved at European level primarily through four sets of measures:

  1. Improvements in aircraft and engine technology – up to 37% savings
  2. Use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) – savings of up to 34
  3. Implementation of economic measures – savings of up to 8%
  4. Improvements in air traffic management (ATM) and flight operations – savings of up to 6%

IATA is focusing even more on the issue of SAF and sees the potential for savings in the following areas:

– 65 % by SAF, production must increase from 100 million litres today to at least 449 billion litres in 2050 to meet demand

– 19 % by offsetting/carbon capture. The power-to-liquid (PtL) process removes CO2 from the atmosphere with the help of (green) electricity and water, which can be used for SAF production

– 13 % through new technologies, especially new aircraft and engines

– 3 % through infrastructure/operations such as Single European Sky, fuel efficiency management systems and weight reduction

Some of these measures are already being implemented today. These include reducing weight, optimising flight routes, improving flight management and further research in the area of surfaces/aerodynamics. Swiss, for example, is currently testing a sharkskin-like surface structure on its Boeing 777-300Er aircraft, which reduces frictional resistance and thus lowers fuel consumption. And passengers can already voluntarily offset their CO2 emissions through various sustainability programmes. For a general solution, however, politics is needed to set the appropriate framework conditions, which are not only based on voluntariness. And politics is also required when it comes to SAF. Both infrastructure and framework conditions for a transition, must be created in order to render the paraffin of the future competitive. As is well known, the processes in aviation are very sluggish due to the certification procedures, so corresponding approvals are needed for each aircraft type. Refuelling with SAF is currently only permitted to the tune of about 10 per cent.

A small contribution on one single flight can make a big difference when extrapolated to thousands of flights. We are extremely excited to see where the journey will take us in the coming years and how the individual issues will evolve. As a communications agency, our team at Grayling advises airlines, airport operators, air navigation service providers and other stakeholders across the aviation industry on their communications needs. From training press officers to planning crisis response strategies or developing 360-degree consumer campaigns, we support with our local expertise and global network. If you would like to discuss your organisation’s challenges in more detail, we would be delighted to support you!


Franziska Köhl, Associate Director, Grayling Germany