AeroDynamic Advisory: Five concerns about the incoming aviation revolution


As with the weather, everybody talks about the climate apocalypse, but nobody does anything about it. At Farnborough this month, that changed. Everyone was trying to do something about it, which isn’t surprising when record heat threatens to turn UK runways into long, thin tar pits. And uninhabitable planets are very bad for air travel growth rates. But what, exactly, to do? I came away from the show with five concerns about what I heard. Words by Richard Aboulafia.

First, eVTOLs. The chalets and halls were filled with these, like a plague of overfunded locusts over the land. EVTOLs (and related UAMs) are presented with eco-friendly bona fides, with “sustainability” often bizarrely inserted into the same sentence as “vertical flight”. But eVTOLs are designed for short flights, which means they actually compete with ground transport, and ground transport is electrifying at a much faster pace than aircraft. Oh, and cars don’t need to fight gravity. Factor in very high eVTOL battery replacement requirements and the exotic, earth-unfriendly-sourced materials in them; that means an eVTOL produces much more environmental damage than an eCar. EVTOLs are not an ESG play, and they should never be presented as such.

Second, Hydrogen. Hydrogen is sucking up a lot of the oxygen in the alternative energy investment space, to mix elements and/or metaphors. Farnborough saw announcements from a wide variety of players, although it’s noteworthy that Airbus has pushed off its expectations of a hydrogen-powered jet from 2035 to 2050. Yet there are a lot of very smart people out there saying that hydrogen is a dead end for aerospace propulsion. MIT’s Dr. Alan Epstein is notably against the stuff, and there are plenty of other smart voices against Big H. I can’t adjudicate on this, but the industry might be digging another investment pit.

Third, electrical propulsion. There are a few electric planes in various degrees of development, and lots of work underway on batteries, architectures, and systems. Airlines are eager to place spec orders, again to show off ESG bona fides. UAL’s United Airlines Ventures unit (notably, not the airline itself) signed a conditional agreement for 100 Heart ES-19s.

But again, there’s a big problem with this. Actually, three big problems: (1) These are 9-19 seat short-range planes, and thanks to high costs unrelated to fuel, there’s almost no airline market for small planes like these; (2) Even when these tiny new planes enter service, and there are, say, a thousand of them flying, in say, 2050, that will only be less than 1% of airline traffic in RPKs; (3) Very few people think these electrical systems can be scaled into anything bigger than small regional aircraft, barring a miraculous breakthrough in battery tech. Electric looks great to some investors, a few dedicated engineers, and non-trade journalists, but does it really solve any problems?

Fourth, Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). Actually, this sounds workable, and may be our best hope for decarbonization. But SAF is also used as a magic wand – hopes rest on work done largely outside our industry. Chemists, biologists, and others need to invent the SAFs we want. Other people outside our industry need to scale SAF output – now way below 0.1% of demand. Historically, synthetic fuel development has also depended on lots of government support.

This dependence on others – and the attendant risk that they don’t pull it off – means SAF resembles the Somebody Else’s Problem (SEP) button from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. For a comic illustration of this SAF-SEP phenomenon, Boom unveiled at Farnborough a redesign of its Overture supersonic jet. It now holds 80 passengers and is powered by four unspecified, totally notional engines, and now looks like a B-58 bomber. How is this not a colossally bad idea, from an ESG standpoint (and all other standpoints)? Well…it now has a zero-carbon roadmap, thanks to…SAF! The APU produces vintage champagne from SAF too!

Fifth, all that cash going into dubious and dead-end tech (excluding SAF) may be distracting from less exciting but more certain investments. Our industry has always benefited from incremental technology improvements, which is why we’ve gotten 1-2% better fuel savings and emissions reductions, on average, every year since jetliners arrived. Yet one question often heard is why bother with these incremental investments when something revolutionary, like Hydrogen, is coming in a decade or two.

Where is the cash going? EVTOLs alone have attracted about $10 billion in investment funding over the past ten years, according to McKinsey. McKinsey’s funding research notes, ominously, that “Momentum is shifting to the sustainable aviation segment.” Which reminds me of this classic Onion parody headline. Where is it not going? Jet engine development roadmaps seem to have stalled out, a problem exacerbated, according to my colleague Kevin Michaels, by engine industry problems. The Air Current recently reported that Rolls-Royce was slow-rolling UltraFan, for example. Boeing’s IRAD budget fell precipitously over the past few years.

Also, ATR and Embraer and the SNC/Deutsche 328eco are having a harder time attracting risk-sharing cash even though props should be a slam dunk from an ESG perspective.

Actually, this fifth ESG concern of mine might be more of an opportunity. We do have a good roadmap to double-digit improvements in fuel burn and emissions. It’s simple, really. More point-to-point flights, using the A321neo, and, hopefully, an even better mid-sized jet from Boeing.

After, all each passenger carried directly to their destination is taking off and landing half as many times than if they’d instead change planes at a large hub airport. Also, more turboprops, replacing that “all jet fleet” nonsense from 20 years ago.

Most of all, we need, more next-generation jet engine development: Scaled-up PW PurePower GTFs, Rolls’s UltraFan, and, perhaps, CFM’s RISE propfan. I was skeptical of RISE when first announced, but with ESG looming, I think they might be on to something. By the way, also at Farnborough Airbus and CFM announced that RISE would be flight tested on an A380, which is remarkable, since they’ve somehow found a way to make an A380 even uglier.

In defence of air transport, I’d point out that we aren’t a big part of the global carbon problem – only around 2% of emissions are attributable to air transport. But jet transport is a visible target, as we might recall from 2019’s Flight Shaming episode. Also, our industry is again growing faster than many other industries, and again, we don’t have a firm decarbonisation roadmap.

Like a lot of other Farnborough (and Heathrow) navigators this summer, I came away shocked by the crowds. As Yogi Berra might say, nobody travels for business anymore – it’s too crowded.