The aviation industry’s increased focus on sustainability while confronting the COVID-19 crisis could be viewed as counterintuitive, admits Haldane Dodd, acting executive director of Air Transport Action Group (ATAG). The number of passengers who flew in 2020 dropped 60% from the year before, and air traffic has yet to recover to 2019 levels before coronavirus became a household term, a report by International Air Transport Association found.

Aviation leaders, in survival mode, could have hunkered down until the pandemic passed.

Instead, the industry is accelerating efforts to make the future of flight more sustainable by investing in cutting-edge technologies and alternative fuels to reduce emissions from travel.

“The pandemic has actually catalyzed the approach to climate action and in a very positive way. It may have been the worst period in aviation history, but it has also been a period with more real climate policy developments, commitments, and Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) agreements than any other time,” Dodd said, speaking at ATAG’s 2021 Global Sustainable Aviation Forum held on September 28.

Commercial airliners, airplane manufacturers and jet engine makers have made a series of commitments throughout 2020 and 2021 to meet industry goals to reduce their environmental impact. Trade organization Airlines for America announced its member carriers are committed to work across the industry and with government leaders to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Likewise, Airlines for Europe announced plans for all flights within and departing the European Union, United Kingdom, and European Free Trade Association to have net zero CO2 emissions under the plan known as Destination 2050. Altogether, airlines representing more than half of global passenger traffic have pledged to meet net zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century, according to ATAG.

In GE Aviation’s view, decarbonizing the aviation industry is an opportunity to build back better from the downturn. Most recently, GE announced its ambition to be a net zero company by 2050, including the Scope 3 emissions from the use of sold products. This followed GE’s previous commitment to be carbon neutral by 2030 in its own facilities and operations, including Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions.

“We’re at the starting point of an inflection where a lot of new technologies are getting introduced and accelerated,” said Arjan Hegeman, general manager of GE Aviation’s advanced technologies, during a panel of aerospace leaders at the ATAG forum.

GE Aviation is currently developing its next generation suite of engine technologies, including open fan engine architecture, hybrid-electric propulsion, and advanced thermal management concepts. GE Aviation is also supporting industry initiatives to approve and adopt 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) and investigating hydrogen as the zero-carbon fuel of the future.

“Electrification and getting a true hybrid electric engine, it adds so many more ways of how we operate the engine and get the efficiency,” Hegeman said. “The open fan architecture gets the entitlement in propulsive efficiency,” at the same speeds and altitudes as single-aisle aircraft today.

Speeding up innovations for the flying public, GE and the U.S. FAA announced earlier in September 2021 plans to invest nearly $55 million over five years through the FAA‘s Continuous Lower Energy, Emissions and Noise (CLEEN) program. This is the third CLEEN award GE Aviation has received since 2010, with funding helping support development of GE’s open fan, electrification, acoustics and other technologies, as well as ongoing research into alternative jet fuels.

Also, in June 2021, GE Aviation and Safran launched a bold technology development program targeting more than 20 percent lower fuel consumption and CO2 emissions compared to today’s most efficient engines. The CFM RISE* (Revolutionary Innovation for Sustainable Engines) Program will demonstrate and mature a range of new, disruptive technologies for future engines that could enter service by the mid-2030s.

*RISE is a registered trademark of CFM International, a 50-50 joint company between GE and Safran Aircraft Engines.