Much was written last year about airlines using the break in service caused by the pandemic to do a stocktake of their fleets, and to take the opportunity presented by temporary lower demand to replace older and less fuel-efficient aircraft and engines with newer and greener models. This assumes that airlines would have both the funding and the motivation to do so – but in practice, the push to green aviation is very, very complicated.
We wrote a lot about this too – for example, about airlines negotiating the ‘green strings’ attached to the various airline bailouts over the last 18 months (you can read more here), and about transition finance as an important and growing lending category for hard-to-green industries (more here). We know the technology is improving, we know sustainable aviation fuel production is scaling up, and we know that consumers are more and more focused on the environmental impact of their travel choices. We also know that making a difference using what we already have will take time – time which we don’t necessarily have.
Perhaps, as some entrepreneurs have suggested, the best way forward is actually to start fresh, creating a new airline to service the opportunities arising from the pandemic using its approach to ESG issues to differentiate itself from competitors from the outset, beginning with investments in biofuel-burning aircraft.
It’s an attractive idea, and seems like a tidy solution. No elderly equipment, no bailout burden, no historic emissions statistics to commit to improve. But if demand for SAF already outstrips supply, how would a new starter get reliable access to it? Will a new airline be attractive to investors when there are existing candidates with track records of providing returns with all their infrastructure already in place? If manufacturer deliveries are already delayed, how are they going to get to the front of the long queue for new efficient aircraft?
It’s possible that these barriers to entry can be overcome. But it’s also difficult to counter the argument that the way to mitigate an industry’s aggregate carbon footprint is for it to have fewer feet – not to grow more, even if those feet have good intentions. It will be very interesting to watch how these plans progress.