Regional flights: an important testing ground for disruptive greening technologies

In this opinion piece Martina Di Palma, Sustainability Manager at European Regions Airline Association (ERA), argues that the short-haul flights segment can offer the necessary push for the decarbonisation of the aviation sector as it provides an important testing ground for the new technologies, such as electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft, that will enable the transition to a more sustainable industry.

This article by Martina Di Palma, Sustainability Manager at European Regions Airline Association (ERA), originally appeared in the European Transport Regulation Observer ‘Navigating Towards the Decarbonisation of European Aviation’ (November, 2021).

In recent years, climate change has become increasingly important at a global level, with the aviation sector receiving growing pressure and scrutiny to reduce its environmental impact. The COVID-19 crisis has only increased the pressure on the industry to act. In November 2020, the European aviation ecosystem published the Aviation Roundtable (ART) report on the recovery of European aviation from the COVID-19 crisis, underlining the need for the recovery to be compatible with CO2 emission reductions.

As a result, five European Aviation associations, A4E, ACI Europe, ASD, CANSO and ERA, published in February 2021 Destination 2050 – A route to net zero aviation report. The report presents a concrete vision and a series of commitments from the industry to achieve -45 per cent CO2 emission reductions by 2050 and to achieve net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050 by addressing technological improvements, sustainable aviation fuels, ATM and operational improvements and market-based measures. The two commitments are in line with the EU’s own targets of CO2 emissions reductions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050.

This is only possible via collaboration, which is key. We not only need collaboration within the aviation industry but also between the industry and energy industries. Most importantly, we need policymakers and regulators to align with our industry, and in particular, the sector asks for, among other things:

  • funding for research programmes to enable development and deployment for breakthrough technologies;
  • support industry investments via incentives;
  • realisation of the Single European Sky (SES);
  • a coherent long term policy framework for SAF; and
  • strengthening of the EU ETS and high standards for CORSIA offset credits.

We need national governments and the European Union (EU) to establish a policy framework that enables the industry to decarbonise that provides clarity and the necessary stability. The European Commission (EC) published in July 2021 the Fit for 55 Package, with relevant proposals for the aviation sector: the EU ETS, ReFuel EU Aviation and the energy taxation. Now it is time for the European Parliament (EP) and European Council to play their role and make sure that these proposals are aligned with the industry targets and allow for the greening of the sector. Member States must, in particular, avoid unilateral approaches that we are currently witnessed when it comes to short-haul flight bans and taxation.

For the past year, regional aviation has been finding itself at a crossroads between innovation and the political and public pressure to reduce passenger volumes. Recently there have been various announcements throughout Europe on the banning of short-haul routes in order to reduce the environmental impact of aviation. However, banning short-haul routes and shifting to rail is only a ‘cosmetic’ measure as most of the CO2 emissions from the sector, circa half of the emissions, come from long-haul routes, while short-haul is responsible for 4.3 per cent in Europe[1]. Therefore, the regional sector is finding itself justifying its very purpose of existence: providing connectivity. ERA airline members connect parts of Europe where air transport is both vital and often the only mode of transportation available to inhabitants in remote regions, islands and dispersed areas.

In addition to this, the short-haul segment can offer the necessary push for the decarbonisation of the sector as it provides the testing ground for the new technologies that will enable the transition to a more sustainable industry. Electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft, for example, will be made first available on short-haul routes by 2035 and then on longer routes beyond 2050.

It is therefore important that the EU and Member States focus on solutions that can actually provide CO2 reductions, such as the ones listed above, and not hinder the progress and potential with initiatives like banning short-haul routes.

[1] Eurocontrol Data Snapshot 4 on CO2 emissions by flight distance (link)

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