This article is part of a series of short papers published by the RISE team. As a relatively new provider of technology to the business aviation industry, the RISE team is keen to share their learnings and perspectives with those who are looking to “go lean and go green”.
In recent years, there has been a growing consensus on the urgent need to curb the impact of the world’s aviation sector, an industry that weighs 3-5% of global warming and whose share is increasing.
But here is the paradox: business aviation weighs approximately 2% of total aviation emissions, and yet it is often expected to do more for the planet than the airlines.
Climate activists generally suggest that the “1% of polluters” should reduce their footprint first, whatever the reality of their travels and business imperatives.
Other observers consider that the business aviation industry is structured with an inherent "premium" –less seat density, less seat occupation, more empty flights–, which alone justifies making bigger efforts.
Fortunately, business aviation lends itself very well to be pioneering the future ways of flying. Its unique characteristics and flexibility provide a fertile ground for testing the innovative technologies and strategies that can later be scaled to the broader commercial aviation sector.
Flexibility and Versatility
Business aircraft are used for a wide range of missions, from short-haul trips to intercontinental flights, often to destinations not served by commercial airlines. This diversity in mission profiles allows for the testing of various decarbonization technologies and strategies in different contexts.
For instance, electric or hybrid propulsion systems will work well to replace small jets (or turboprop aircraft) for relatively short distances. On the other hand, contrail avoidance techniques ought to be tested on longer, intercontinental flights.
Business aviation also tends to connect smaller airports and airfields, often bypassing major hubs. This operational flexibility provides an opportunity to optimize aircraft routings, and to test new air traffic management procedures.
Smaller fleets and teams
Compared to the commercial airline industry, business aviation operators typically run much smaller fleets. This characteristic makes it easier to introduce and experiment with new technologies and fuels.
The organizations themselves are generally smaller and leaner than those of airlines, which means any changes to the ways of working require convincing fewer people.
Business aviation can thus serve as a proving ground for sustainable technologies, which can later be scaled up for use in larger commercial aircraft.
More people likely to take the initiative
Multiple parties can be involved in a business aviation flight: the aircraft owner, the operator, the client and perhaps even a broker.
Each of these people might have their own motivations to reduce the flight’s climate impact: the client might want to reduce their personal footprint ; the operators might want to increase their overall use of sustainable fuel to get a better deal with the fuel provider ; etc.
A number of airports are also seeking to green their operations, and this includes those infrastructures that receive a majority of business flights.
All in all there is a chance that at least one of the parties is willing to test new ways of flying, and to bear the cost of such trials.
Influence on public perception
Lastly, business aviation is often associated with high-profile individuals and organizations, which means that any advances in decarbonization made in this sector can have a significant influence on public perception. When celebrities, executives, and influential figures start requesting sustainable fuels or a “low contrail” flight, it will create a domino effect, encouraging wider acceptance and adoption of these technologies in commercial aviation.
There are of course a few headwinds, and the main one is intrinsic to the on-demand nature of business aviation.
Regular flights between destinations are very helpful to test contrail avoidance technologies, for example. Repeated patterns can help the airlines focus on the 20% of segments that generate 80% of contrails, and implement the appropriate measures with a specific set of airports, pilots, etc.
Likewise, when electric aircraft are introduced, we will be going through a transition phase where only a limited number of airports are equipped with charging infrastructure. And electric aircraft will be limited to ranges of a few hundred miles. In such a context, it may be easier for a regional airline to deploy electric aircraft on a given segment, with dedicated charging infrastructures, before scaling up to other destinations.
By investing in and experimenting with sustainable practices within business aviation, we can accelerate the transition toward a more sustainable and environmentally responsible aviation industry. Lessons learned from business aviation can then be applied to larger commercial aircraft, contributing to the global effort to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change. RISE builds technology that supports these changes, and will use every opportunity to encourage all stakeholders to embrace the transition.