Friday, July 13, 2007

Prius in the Sky

A lot has changed since I last commented on the competing air travel visions of Airbus and Boeing two years ago. The former has stumbled, with its flagship A380 plagued by delays and manufacturing problems. Meanwhile Boeing rolled out the avatar of its new vision this week to much fanfare. Paralleling this change in fortunes, the implications of these two technologies now look different, as well. In 2005 I was concerned about the potential of thousands of A380s to put billions of new travelers in the air, consuming enormous incremental quantities of jet fuel in the process. But with the world increasingly worried about climate change and the means of managing it economically, Boeing's Dreamliner looks like the aircraft equivalent of Toyota's Prius hybrid car: the first real demonstration of a set of technologies that could dramatically reduce both fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in the aviation sector, at least compared to their status quo trends.

A recent Economist article looked at this in some detail. It cited figures from the UK's Stern Report on climate change indicating that emissions from air travel, though only around 3% of the total today, are growing at a faster rate than those from other sectors. Saving 20% of fuel and emissions with the 787's better engines and lighter construction may not sound as dramatic as the doubling of fuel economy in hybrid cars, but aircraft don't offer similar opportunities to recapture braking energy, which is where hybrids derive most of their gains.

Economic growth is intertwined with mobility, and as long as the global economy keeps growing, more and more people will be flying. While planes like the 787 represent a hardware solution for minimizing the energy and environmental impacts of that growth, a broader range of strategies will be needed. Travel booking websites like Expedia already connect green consumers with the means of offsetting the emissions from their air travel, but airlines could provide this service on all their tickets at a lower cost; in the not-too-distant future, they may be required to do so.

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