What the fuel transition means for aviation

Airports are facing unprecedented pressures to transition away from fossil fuels, particularly in the context of landing and take-off (LTO) cycles, which can account for up to 70% of an airport’s carbon emissions. Around the world, emerging legislation, government incentives and technological advances by aircraft manufactures and fuel producers are driving this positive fuel transition.

The global fuel transition in aviation is underpinned by legislation and incentives that encourage the uptake of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). The political imperative is abundantly clear if we look at planned mandates around the world. By 2050, legislation is expected to drive up to 75% SAF use in the UK and 70% across the European Union. Meanwhile, the Grand Challenge Roadmap in the USA calls for the use of 35 billion gallons of SAF a year in the same timeframe.

Importantly, this legislative push is coupled with a growing appetite for fossil fuel alternatives among airlines and aviation equipment manufacturers. When I last wrote about this topic in 2021, I highlighted the central role of SAF in the aviation sector’s journey to net zero. Two years on, the sector has seen technological advances, innovation and proofs of concept beyond a simple focus on SAF as drop-in fuels.

The use of hydrogen and electricity – as aviation fuels in their own right – are getting closer to technological and commercial feasibility; electric airliners are now planned to enter service by the late 2020s; while hydrogen fuel cell aircraft are expected to become commercially viable in the next decade. Promising to push beyond the range limits of electric and fuel cell aviation, hydrogen combustion saw a breakthrough in November 2022, when Rolls-Royce and EasyJet completed a successful test run of the world’s first aero engine on hydrogen.

In other words, commercial aviation is set to transition away from fossil fuel to a future of commercial airliners powered by different propellants. Airports need to be prepared to support everything within this fuel mix, with SAF from biomass feedstock, synthetic SAF from captured carbon and hydrogen (aka e-fuels), pure hydrogen, and electricity all emerging as viable alternatives.

Clearly, this marks a massive deviation from decades of working with a single fuel option. The sector knows this, of course, and we’re already seeing airports respond to these needs. One such example is Keflavík Airport in Iceland, a Mace client since 2019. To help prepare Keflavík for its fuel transition, at the start of 2023 we completed a first-of-a-kind project with them, a future fuels readiness study.

Developed in collaboration with the client and industry partners, our study has proven to be one of the first successful projects in the market to estimate future fuels infrastructure changes specific to a given airport. We’ve produced precise, evidence-based airport infrastructure changes needed at Keflavík from 2023 to 2050. In doing so, we’ve set a framework that will enable airlines using the airport to adopt the four future fuels and gradually phase out fossil jet fuel.

The study centers on forecasted demand levels per fuel type, based on passenger, fuel consumption and flight data at the airport, as well compliance with the mandated SAF blend rates from the ReFuelEU Aviation proposal. To meet projected demand levels, we then estimated the biomass feedstock, electrical and thermal power required to produce enough of each fuel. Finally, both the demand and supply forecasts helped us identify and size infrastructure changes within the airport. It’s a complex piece of work that showcases some of the specialized and strategic capabilities within Mace’s Consult offering, proven in adding value to future infrastructure delivery programs.

For Keflavík, we identified five key on-site infrastructure changes necessary to enable the fuel transition, ranging from expansion of the local electricity network to support battery or hybrid aircraft charging in the mid to late-2020s, to hydrogen transportation and on-site liquefaction and storage in the 2030s-2040s.

Critically, our Keflavík experience has proven the feasibility and relevance of our future fuels readiness study as a ‘template’, both technically and commercially. The transition to net zero will rely on good ideas being communicated and taken up across the board and so, since completing the study, we’ve been working hard to share our findings across a broad range of stakeholders to help facilitate national-level infrastructure planning in Iceland.

Brynjar Vatnsdal, project client sponsor, department manager, Airport Development and Construction, at Isavia, the national airport and air navigation service provider in Iceland, said, “The study has been very important for Isavia to set out a timeline for infrastructure decision points for future fuels, but also to communicate to stakeholders and government bodies what infrastructure investments are needed on a national scale to achieve the goals set out.” The aviation sector knows the pressure it is under to reduce carbon emissions and, quite frankly, it’s a challenge that’s viewed positively and relished by most. But ideas now need to be put into action.

Keflavík Airport has realised there is no time to waste in tackling the climate emergency, but that knee-jerk reactions and uncoordinated, ad-hoc gestures cannot form the spine of the solution. Through our study, we’ve shown that investing time and effort up front, looking at the bigger picture and proactively seeking cross-industry coordination provides a framework for success.

Crucially, it’s an approach that can translate across the aviation sector and beyond.

This article was first published in Passenger Terminal Today.