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‘Future of Aviation’ Report: Road Map or Wish List?

Search for “Sustainable alternative aviation fuels.” That’s the number 1 recommendation of the just-released report from the Department of Transportation’s blue-ribbon committee on “The Future of Aviation.” And, as usual, announcement of such a report leads many to question how useful it really is:

“Are the committee’s recommendations really a roadmap to an improved aviation system, or are they just another politically correct wish list that will quickly get lost in a filing cabinet?”

{{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}My short answer is, “Some of each.” To mix culinary metaphors, it’s a combination of “beef” and “pie in the sky.” As travelers, you can really get behind some of the recommendations, and some have a real chance of implementation in this lifetime. Others, however, can probably be relegated to a quick but comfortable retirement gathering dust on a shelf.


Whenever discussion turns to “what should we do” questions, my initial reaction invariably is, “OK, what are our objectives?” For the future of aviation, I can see four major national objectives:

  1. Improve aviation system efficiency and reliability.
  2. Ensure fair treatment for consumers.
  3. Reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
  4. Reduce dependence on foreign oil imports.

Some of the recommendations address these concerns, but the priorities seem to be a bit out of whack.

Efficient and Reliable Air System

My take is that, no matter what else, the industry’s main immediate challenge—and the Department of Transportation’s main objective—should be to improve the efficiency and reliability of the national air transportation system. And, for now, that means get on with implementation of “NextGen” air traffic control with “all deliberate haste.” Committee recommendations 3, 6, 7, 8, and 21 all support elements of NextGen implementation.

Although NextGen has not yet been finalized, it includes moving from a radar-based system to one based on GPS technology for guiding airplanes in the US airspace and for precision approaches to airports. When fully developed, it will increase the overall reliability of the national air system—especially by improving airport access and departure in bad weather conditions—more than anything else we can do at the present time. The technology is in place and some airlines are already using it at some airports, but a quick national rollout is essential to achieving full benefits.

By increasing reliability, allowing more direct flight routings, and streamlining airport area flight paths, NextGen will contribute to the other three primary objectives, as well: an improved consumer experience, lower emissions, and reduced oil imports. NextGen should certainly be the top priority.

Unfortunately, the commission punted on the other pressing airport and airspace efficiency issue: user fees that would reflect actual use of system capacity. Its recommendation (number 10) simply suggests an “independent study.” That’s the graveyard of timely action. Feh.

Fair Treatment for Consumers

The commission finally got around to consumer issues in recommendation 11, but you wonder why it even bothered. The recommendations zero in on “transparency” rather than on specific requirements for improved protections airline customers really need. We’ve written about several specifics—all issues ignored by the commission.

Reduced Carbon Emissions

Here, the commission has one recommendation, at number 2, that is relatively vague. It suggests that the Department of Transportation “accelerate” technology development, in general, but at least with an implied focus on improved fuel efficiencies for both engines and airframes. That’s all good, but, in fact, Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier, Embraer, General Electric, Pratt & Whitney, and Rolls-Royce don’t need government prodding on fuel efficiency. All are heavily focused on reduced fuel consumption to improve their edge in the highly competitive airplane market. Sure, they’d all like some more government funding, but they’re working ahead as best they can without it.

The committee’s number 1 recommendation—sustainable alternative aviation fuels—could, in theory, lead to reduced carbon emissions. However, the Committee’s prime focus is on biofuels, which don’t help with carbon emissions at all. Those fuels still burn carbon and emit CO2, and given the energy expended to produce them, they may actually make the carbon situation a bit worse.

The only alternative aircraft fuel systems that could actually reduce carbon emissions are (1) hydrogen, (2) some system to generate or store large amounts of electricity in flight, or (3) nuclear propulsion. All three are, at best, problematic in the foreseeable future. For that foreseeable future, aviation will remain the most oil-dependent use of fossil fuels, with the fewest feasible substitution alternatives.

Moreover, aviation’s contribution to the carbon problem is small compared with that of power generation. As a national goal to reduce carbon, we should remove aviation from the bulls-eye and focus instead on replacing coal-fired power generation. That means full speed ahead with hydro, wind, solar, and nuclear.

Reduced Oil Imports

Biofuels (recommendation 1) could help lower oil imports. They theoretically displace oil on a one-to-one basis. But, as I assess the technologies involved, aviation is the toughest challenge for biofuels. Much better that the country focus on use of biofuels for less critical applications on ground vehicles—and then, only when they make overall economic sense.

Other Recommendations

Beyond these objectives, the committee’s recommendations seem to be of the “mom, apple pie, and baseball” stripe. Everybody wants top safety standards. Everybody wants global airline competitiveness rather than excessive regulation. Everybody supports improved scientific/technology education. In Chris Matthews’ catch phrase, “Tell me something I don’t know.”

The End Result

If the commission’s effort does nothing else, giving NextGen another nudge would be enough to justify its existence and activities. Anything beyond is icing on the cake. Let’s hope, at least, that we get the cake.

Your Turn

What do you think is most important for the future of aviation? Tell us about it by adding a comment below!

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