Lukas Kaestner, co-founder of the Sustainable Aero Lab and president of the Crystal Cabin Award Association mulls the future from the ‘Green Room’

Speakers of a panel discussion will often gather in a Green Room prior to going on stage, making themselves familiar with other panellists, and outlining their individual points in the upcoming discussion. I recently joined such a Green Room at the Sustainable Design Summit in London.

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Sitting in that room, it came to my mind that the situation was a little metaphoric to aviation’s journey on becoming a ‘green’ industry. Everybody is eager to go on stage, but we’re still in that room.

Covid has been an important eye-opener that we will have to brace for further ‘black swan events’, with number one being global warming. When I helped co-found the Sustainable Aero Lab in late 2020, it felt like we were still operating in a distinct niche. This has changed since then, as Airbus’ ZeroE strategy and IATA’s pledge for net-zero aviation by 2050 show – just to give two examples.

Aviation has figured out its ‘flight plan’, but we haven’t really taken off. Or, actually, upped the game. Aviation has been painted as a villain for many years, especially in the European discussion. However, with new engine generations like the GTFs, and lightweight structures in the fuselages and cabins, it’s fair to say we have already progressed.

Yet these innovations were not due to our great care for the environment. Fuel has always been a most significant cost driver in our industry, with airlines keen to keep spending low. But now, we see the dawn of another cost factor in aviation – a direct cost for emissions. Pricing this has already started with the CORSIA roadmap, and will only gain in relevance and height over time. On the other side, funding opportunities for sustainable R&D in aviation have never been better, and budgets continue to grow.

Gen Z

Action will be needed also in terms of passengers. In the next 15 years, the ‘baby boomers’ will retire from their jobs. This was the generation most interested in status programmes, lounge access, and amenities such as onboard newspapers. The future traveller will be from Gen Z, a group that has already put the fight against global warming as their top priority today. They will demand new answers from our industry for passenger experience.

But Gen Z will also create new business opportunities. While the 2000s saw the rise of low-cost airlines in many parts of the world, we might see the rise of sustainable carriers in the next decades – where people will actively pay a premium to use an eco-efficient product.

Especially in the cabin, there is still great potential to be tapped in this regard. Roughly three quarters of an aircraft cabin currently goes straight to landfill upon end of life. It also has to do with existing regulations: Cabin surfaces have to be fire-retardant, which counters recycling efforts. Together with regulators, we will have to find a middle way where we keep safety records, but move from a supply chain mindset into a supply circle one.

It becomes apparent that for this next step, we will need everybody to join the stage at once. Aviation needs to leave the prep room and bring new ideas into the spotlight. This is the main incentive behind both the Sustainable Aero Lab and the Crystal Cabin Awards, by the way. With entries for the latter still open to submission until February 2023, including the Sustainable Cabin category, I highly encourage you to make your way to the stage and share your ideas. The time has never been better!

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