Big Things Are Happening In Europe

Mobility, Sustainability, and the Future of Aviation

By Gavin Francis, Senior Aviation Writer

The challenges of meeting the growing demand for air travel while also addressing sustainability issues was a topic of discussion recently at an international aviation conference in Cologne, Germany. The three-day meeting, which took place June 13–15, was organized by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the FAA. The joint conference brought together aviation stakeholders from around the globe to discuss aviation safety issues from the perspective of both regulators and industry, with an emphasis on safe, sustainable, and efficient air operations.

Of particular interest was the topic of short-haul electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft being developed through advanced air mobility (AAM) initiatives. These new-entrant aircraft have gained a lot of attention recently, as they not only offer the possibility of increased capacity, but also a more environmentally friendly approach to air travel. But exactly how to safely integrate these vehicles into existing airspace is a concern that ALPA and others are currently investigating.

Capt. Steve Jangelis (Delta), the Association’s Aviation Safety chair, participated in an EASA/FAA conference panel regarding air traffic management and the safe integration of new entrants. ALPA is constantly engaging with its international partners to ensure that pilots are well represented in regulatory decision-making.

“ALPA recognizes the demand for new entrants in our global airspace system. But we need to ensure they’re integrated safely, and transoceanic government and industry collaboration is key to guaranteeing the highest level of safety,” Jangelis remarked.

Manufacturers of these aircraft are looking to showcase their concepts at major public events. Volocopter, an eVTOL aircraft manufacturer, plans to offer passenger flights in its two-seat VoloCity aircraft during the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, France. The city of Los Angeles is also planning to provide air-taxi service during the 2028 Summer Olympic Games. AAM proponents hope these high-profile unveilings of the new technology will accelerate public acceptance.

However, ALPA is deeply concerned that eVTOL vehicles might someday be remotely piloted or perhaps even be capable of autonomous flight. Regulators in Europe are already considering the idea of reducing the number of pilots on the flight deck in some types of flight operations, and aircraft manufacturers are also looking at ways to incorporate artificial intelligence into aircraft systems. Developers of eVTOL vehicles have indicated their intention of producing pilotless passenger aircraft. Efforts to make that a reality are especially concerning in Europe where the timeline is much more aggressive.

Capt. Jason Ambrosi, ALPA’s president, has sounded the alarm, saying safety should always be the primary focus, regardless of technological advances.

“Recent advances in automation and other new technologies have led some airline industry groups to consider the possibility of reducing the number of crewmembers on the flight deck, entertaining the idea of single-pilot or even remote-pilot operations,” he said. “We believe these ideas ignore the important role that pilots physically present on the flight deck serve in the safe operation of their aircraft.”

Sustainability and aviation-related environmental issues have also been in the news recently as climate activists in Europe have made the public more aware of aviation’s impact on the environment. A German group called “Letzte Generation,” the Last Generation, staged a protest at Sylt Airport in northern Germany by spray painting a private Cessna Citation CJ1+ business jet with orange paint. The activists also displayed banners with messages criticizing the environmental impact of private air travel. This isn’t the first time such protests have occurred. Similar demonstrations took place at Germany’s Brandenburg Airport and Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport in 2022. Activists have taken aim at private aviation due to concerns about its contribution to pollution and its effect on climate change.

Environmental concerns have also been in the spotlight in France, where the Paris Air Show recently took place at Paris-Le Bourget Airport after a four-year hiatus due to the COVID pandemic. In May, the French government implemented a ban on short-haul domestic flights that can be replaced by train travel of under two and a half hours. The law primarily affects routes between Paris Orly Airport and regional airports. Connecting flights aren’t affected. The ban is part of France’s 2021 Climate and Resilience law.

Meanwhile, the aviation industry continues to search for ways to achieve carbon-neutral air travel. At this year’s Paris Air Show, the focus was on building more environmentally friendly aircraft through advancements in technology and the development of sustainable aviation fuels. However, there are logistical challenges that currently prevent these fuels from becoming a viable long-term solution.

Yet, one thing is for sure: issues related to sustainability and the environment will continue to be a challenge as demand for more air travel surges. A good indication of this is the $55 billion 500-airplane deal between Airbus and low-cost Indian carrier IndiGo announced at the Paris Air Show, the largest-ever single order for civil aircraft.

This article was originally published in the August 2023 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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