February 26. 2024. 6:10

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Business as usual ‘dangerous’ for aviation, warns Rome airport chief

A realistic pathway to cut aviation emissions is the best way the sector can prevent lawmakers from restricting flying on environmental grounds, the head of Rome’s Fiumicino and Ciampino airports has said.

As the impacts of climate change increase in frequency and intensity, the willingness of lawmakers to give polluting industries a pass will wane, Marco Troncone, the CEO of Aeroporti di Roma, told EURACTIV.

Continuing a business-as-usual approach would therefore be “very dangerous, in terms of negative restrictions and punitive policies” according to Troncone.

“Chances are high that in five years time, the level of attention [on polluting industries] will be higher than exists now. And at that time there will be zero tolerance,” he said.

“If there is tolerance it will only be given in exchange for a promise [to cut emissions], which must be credible,” he added.

Rather than waiting for regulators to force change, Italian aviation stakeholders banded together to create a road map for the decarbonisation of the aviation sector, one that sets out a realistic pathway to reduce the sector’s carbon footprint.

The “Pact for the Decarbonisation of Air Transport” aimed to move away from the “slogans and groundless intentions” of the past, showing regulators achievable steps to reach a greener aviation sector – steps which rely on proven methods rather than speculative technological fixes in the future.

“The ultimate objective [of the Pact] was to provide a convincing, credible, and effective answer to the question of how the aviation industry will get out of this problem before it’s too late,” Troncone explained.

Financing decarbonisation

The path towards decarbonisation is expected to be costly, as cleaner fuels are currently several times more expensive than their fossil equivalent.

According to Troncone, this will likely mean that passengers will need to pay more to fly, as airlines attempt to shoulder green charges while remaining profitable.

However, if ticket prices surge and demand falls too greatly, many players in the industry could find themselves struggling to stay afloat.

Hence, public subsidies should be used to ensure that passenger numbers do not collapse, giving aviation players time to transition to a green way of operating, Troncone believes.

“What we would like to see is a public intervention to complement the contribution of operators and of customers, allowing us to reach a certain level of scale,” he said.

As for EU regulations, Troncone said he would prefer to see a greater emphasis on incentives, rather than mandates.

Under the ReFuelEU regulation, airlines would be required to partly refuel with synthetic fuels and biofuels made from approved feedstocks.

The airport head questioned the feasibility of the EU’s green jet fuel law, which is currently being debated by member states and MEPs.

“Those mandates do not have, at least to my knowledge, a very solid grounding in terms of execution capability from the sector,” he said.

“There is some research that says that the blending mandate in the medium term – up to 15, 20, 30 percent from biological sources – would simply be impossible because of feedstock constraints.”

“We think those are mandates whose destiny is not to be met in actual fact,” he added.

It is expected that demand for sustainable aviation fuels in the coming years will be satisfied with biofuels from feedstocks such as used-cooking oil, before transitioning primarily to hydrogen-derived synthetic fuels in the future.

Aviation leaders hail green fuel as carbon saviour, but wonder who will pay

Greener fuel is the only way airlines will meet strict global carbon emission targets, executives meeting in Dublin this week agreed, but there’s little consensus on who should foot the hefty bill to ramp up production.

Hydrogen planes

Beyond replacing kerosene with green jet fuels, new clean technologies, such as hydrogen-powered jets and electric planes, are touted as a means to cut the sector’s climate impact.

European plane manufacturer Airbus is currently testing hydrogen propulsion technology, with the aim of bringing hydrogen planes into commercial service by 2035.

However, Troncone is not convinced that these much-hyped technological solutions offer the answer to reducing the aviation sector’s emissions.

“In our view, at least today – and this is part of the credibility effort we want to make – the actual potential of hydrogen for aircraft is yet to be proved. It’s not a matter of ‘when’, we think it’s an issue of ‘if’,” he said.

Asked if Roman airports are preparing for the infrastructural changes that these new technologies will require – such as new fuelling and recharging facilities – Tronconce said that there is a wait-and-see approach.

“When it comes to aircraft, there are a number of issues which suggest that there are chances that we will never see, at least a long haul flight, solely fueled by hydrogen.”

As for electric planes, Troncone believes they will be limited to covering very short distances for the next decades: “We think [electric] will never be the one to allow long haul journeys, like from London to San Francisco, which are the flights that in the end cover the lion’s share of emissions.”

If in 2025 Airbus confirms its 2035 timeline for hydrogen jets, Rome’s airports will start to invest in the necessary upgrades, Troncone promised.

“I’m pretty positive that 10 years will be a more than sufficient time for us to get equipped and ready for that, but we’ll start on this when we are sure that there is a potential,” he said.

“If not, we tend to not even speak about it, because this is only confusing and the time in which people will get fed up of listening to dreams is coming.”

Airbus tells EU hydrogen won’t be widely used in planes before 2050

Most airliners will rely on traditional jet engines until at least 2050, with the introduction of zero-emissions hydrogen limited to regional and short-range planes, Airbus told European Union officials in a briefing released on Thursday (10 June).