There is more to achieving carbon neutral flying than sustainable aviation fuel, as Daria Sergeeva at Wizz Air explains to Paul E Eden
On 7 October 2022, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) member states “…adopted a collective long-term global aspirational goal (LTAG) of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The achievement of the LTAG,” the announcement continued, “will rely on the combined effect of multiple CO2 emissions reduction measures, including the accelerated adoption of new and innovative aircraft technologies, streamlined flight operations, and the increased production and deployment of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF).” Setting aside the lack of commitment implied in defining an ‘aspirational goal’, the announcement described an apparently sound strategy, albeit taking more than quarter of a century to implement.
Combining the climate effects of its carbon output with other emissions and contrails, aviation contributes around 3.5% of the annual global warming effect. Extraordinary efforts to reduce fuel burn mean the latest aircraft are vastly more efficient than their forebears but the growth in demand for commercial flying has largely negated any benefit from the reduced emissions associated with burning less fuel. That 3.5% figure is more or less accurate today. Just as it was a decade ago.
On 20 March 2023, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report described by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as a ‘survival guide for humanity’. In its wake, Guterres called for countries committed to carbon neutrality by 2050 to bring that commitment forward to the greatest extent possible by 2040. It has ramifications for aviation, including regional routes providing essential connectivity and the low-cost carrier model, which has become the cornerstone of leisure and business flying in Europe and elsewhere.
We are in a period of damage mitigation, where every reduction in carbon release is critical and airlines must adopt multi-faceted strategies and lobby governments and regulators to achieve carbon neutrality in what may become a dramatically reduced time frame.
Sustainable by example
Daria Sergeeva, Sustainability Communications Manager at Wizz Air, is aware of the challenge. “Wizz Air is already among the world’s most environmentally sustainable airlines with one of the lowest carbon emissions per passenger kilometre,” she says. “Our sustainability strategy aims to take us further, with key pillars in fleet renewal, fuel efficiency, sustainable aviation fuel, direct impact offsetting through carbon capture, zero emission aircraft and air traffic reforms. Continuous investment in these areas will help us reach our goal of reducing carbon emissions by 25% by 2030.
“Operating young, efficient aircraft is at the heart of our strategy. With its next-generation engines, the A321neo is by far the most fuel and cost efficient aircraft in its class today, reducing fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 16% to 20% and NOx emissions by 50% per flight. SAF also has a significant role to play in getting the industry to net-zero emissions by 2050. To ensure there are sufficient supplies of SAF to meet upcoming blending mandates, we have signed agreements with providers including OMV and Neste.
“We also believe that direct impact offsetting solutions, including direct air carbon capture and storage, will have a significant role in achieving net zero. The development of highly effective carbon offsetting technologies can shift the market towards carbon capture solutions. However, the most promising and valuable solutions are unlikely to be available in the medium term.”
Wizz Air is taking a realistic short and medium-term approach based on fuel efficiency and SAF, with carefully targeted offset as a longer term goal. The long term is also where Sergeeva places zero-emission aircraft. Meanwhile, she identifies several activities where Wizz Air is acting to make continuous, smaller inroads into reducing its emissions and improving overall sustainability.
“We taxi on one engine when possible after landing, making our ground movements more efficient. We also use ground power units rather than auxiliary power units where available to avoid running aircraft engines. And we are committed to integrating sustainability solutions across our entire supply chain. Last year, we implemented a new sustainable procurement policy, which ensures that any company we contract shares Wizz Air’s sustainability principles and practices.”
Wizz Air’s aggressive policy on sustainability ought to be an example to all airlines. There is a danger of failing to implement the measures possible today because the possibilities of tomorrow appear so promising. In the short to medium term, electric aviation, for example, will deliver more sustainable air transport solutions for small numbers of passengers, but an electric aircraft capable of A321neo-like performance is likely three or more decades away.
Conversely, net-zero operations, at least on some fleet elements, are more likely to debut among regional operators long before they reach the LLCs or long-haul carriers. Projects including Electra’s eSTOL, Faradair’s hybrid-electric BEHA (Bio Electric Hybrid Aircraft) and newcomer Jekta’s unique Passenger Hydro Aircraft Zero Emission 100 (PHA-ZE 100) electric amphibian flying boat are likely to bring electric propulsion to the smaller capacity end of regional flying, initially replacing aircraft like the Twin Otter and Islander on niche routes. They may also enable new routes to underserved communities through lower operating costs and their friendly environmental credentials.
In the cabin, Sergeeva says: “We are working with our partners and suppliers to make our onboard experience more sustainable and recently replaced plastic cutlery and packaging with items in more eco-friendly and biodegradable materials. Since 2011, Wizz Air has flown with recycled leather seats. Using an ELeather manufacturing process, waste leather, which would otherwise go to landfill, is recycled into a durable material for aircraft seats. It contributes 77% less to land fill and uses 68% less water compared to the production of traditional leather seats.” At the front of the aircraft, Wizz Air’s cockpits employ iPad-based EFBs and are paperless which, Sergeeva explains: “Saves around six million sheets of paper per year and reduces fuel consumption through more accurate flight planning and weight savings.”
Wizz Air has also removed paper from its passenger transactions and office administration. Sergeeva again: “Our tickets are sold via our website and the Wizz Air app, with boarding passes stored in digital format in the app or shared with passengers via email. Several internal initiatives, including the use of e-signature, the digitisation of procure-to-pay processes and electronic power of attorney requests further reduce our paper consumption.”
The airline has also avoided the trap so easily fallen into of sourcing SAF for its fuel-efficient fleet, only to forget about efficiency in its infrastructure. On the contrary, its Budapest headquarters is BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) certified for energy efficiency, while its training centre, also in the Hungarian capital, has been granted a CC Energy Performance Certificate.
Since it operates to international destinations outside the EU, Wizz Air’s passengers are entitled to duty free shopping. There is some irony in the fact that airlines are willing to invest heavily in modern fuel efficient aircraft then load them with duty free goods. Wizz Air is no exception, although Sergeeva notes: “We offer duty free products in response to passenger demand, but we’re aware of the sustainability implications of carrying excess stock and the amount of product carried is route dependent, aligned with our business metrics, and adjusted on a case-by-case basis.”
Wizz Air’s drive for sustainability is founded on fleet renewal, fuel saving initiatives and SAF. However, in partnership with CHOOOSE, which promotes global climate standards and supports projects aligned with the Oxford Offsetting Principles, the airline also offers passengers a voluntary carbon offsetting scheme through two verified environmental projects. “But this is not included in our overall emissions reduction strategy. We don’t believe carbon offsetting is an ultimate solution to reducing emissions,” Sergeeva states.
Opinions of the validity of offset schemes vary, but properly audited projects undoubtedly have merit, especially so as part of a wider airline initiative, even if they may not be the solution long term. UK regional carrier Loganair, for example, levies a small charge on almost every ticket it sells, investing the funds raised in offset schemes and the development of new sustainable technologies. It also runs a GreenSkies Community Fund aimed at renewable projects in the communities it serves, part of its effort to become carbon neutral by 2040, ahead of the ICAO’s ambition but in keeping with the UN’s calls for accelerated efforts.
Daria Sergeeva also notes the importance of looking beyond the individual passenger and even the airline, to the much bigger picture. “Improvements in air traffic control are crucial to increasing operational efficiency and, ultimately, reducing carbon emissions in the long-term. Modernising air traffic management with innovative technology would enable more efficient take-off and landing cycles, reduce stacking, allow narrower flight paths and permit flights to take advantage of prevailing winds. All of this means more efficient flying and less fuel burn – so fewer emissions.
“We are dedicating significant resources into exploring pathways to net zero by 2050. Within that, Wizz Air is part of the UK Government’s consultation on its Jet Zero 2050 strategy and actively participates in the government backed FlyZero initiative. Our aspiration to reach net zero by 2050 is clear, but there are external factors outside our control. Further investment is paramount, from the industry and government, driving collaboration, research and development, the realisation of infrastructure for future technologies, including zero-emission aircraft, production of SAF in the required quantities and direct carbon capture.”