Sustainable aviation fuel is a recurring theme at the National Business Aviation Association’s Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition (NBAA-BACE) in Orlando, Florida, but the emphasis on sustainability goes beyond biofuels.
To be sure, it seemed no press conference could conclude without an SAF testing milestone or pledge to increase usage of fuels made from renewable biomass and waste resources. But airframe manufacturers and other companies are responding to social and regulatory pressures to reduce business aviation's carbon footprint with variations on a strategy Boeing Chief Strategy Officer Marc Allen called “SAF and.”
The NBAA event comes on the heels of the International Civil Aviation Organization Assembly in Montreal, where ICAO member states adopted an aspirational goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Across the globe, aviation faces pressure to reduce its environmental impact. France, for instance, faces proposals to regulate or even ban business jet travel. Allen reminded the audience that there are people who believe aviation should go away.
“The only we answer we have is to demonstrate that we can in fact do what we’ve been doing all along, which is keep making aviation more sustainable, more efficient,” he said. “If we can deliver all this value of protecting the world, moving goods, growing economies for people, and doing it in a way that in fact is out front delivering on the value of an environmentally sound world.”
Allen said new, more fuel-efficient aircraft and operational changes such as continuous descents in lieu of step-downs are making aviation more sustainable and called a goal of SAF comprising 10 percent of all aviation fuel use by 2030 ambitious but doable.
Although Allen anticipated commercial aviation would lead widespread SAF adoption, NBAA President and CEO Ed Bolen later reported that business aviation currently represents 8 percent of SAF deliveries despite making up a far smaller percentage of total fuel consumption. And business jet operators are increasingly looking to SAF as a means to address environmental concerns: In Honeywell’s annual survey of business aviation operators, more than 60 percent reported they plan to adopt or increase methods for more environmentally friendly operations, and 37 percent of those respondents cited SAF as a way to achieve this goal. The most frequently cited current method of reducing operators' carbon footprint was "fewer or slower private jet trips," which makes future SAF use sound even more appealing.
The challenge, right now, is supply. Feedstocks such as cooking oil and biomass are limited resources, and demand for SAF far exceeds the limited supply. SAF also is more expensive than traditional Jet A, and the Honeywell survey found that many operators who don't plan to adopt SAF could be convinced by economic incentives such as tax benefits or operating cost savings.
Technologies such as electric and hydrogen power also found their place at NBAA-BACE, with advanced air mobility exhibitors such as Wisk, Supernal, and Overair displaying mockups and companies such as ZeroAvia promoting alternative powertrains. Advanced air mobility designs will rely on advancements in propulsion, autonomy, and security, but those developments won't happen exclusively in the eVTOL realm—Allen said his company’s “capability mindset” is leading it away from platform-specific technology development, instead focusing it on using the right platform to develop a capability that may then move to other applications.