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IATA chief accuses Europe of ‘greenwashing’ on aviation emissions

Airlines seek government action on low-carbon fuels, 5G and lithium batteries

The airline industry wants to use more sustainable jet fuel to help combat climate change, but only a small amount is being made. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

A major trade group for global cargo and passenger airlines is calling on governments to do more to ensure increased production of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), as well as the safe deployment of 5G telecommunications networks and carriage of lithium batteries on aircraft.

The International Air Transport Association issued the positions at its annual general meeting in Doha, Qatar, this week.

IATA said governments must quickly adopt large-scale incentives to spur the rapid expansion of sustainable aviation fuels in order to help the aviation industry achieve its target for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Aviation makes up about 2.4% of global CO2 emissions. 

Airline industry officials plan to rely on biofuel or synthetic substitutes for kerosene jet fuel to reach their goal until alternative technologies, such as electric and hydrogen propulsion, become commercially viable. And those technologies will only be usable for short-haul flights while the majority of carbon emissions come from long-distance flying. 

The airline industry’s road map to carbon neutrality has SAF contributing up to 65% of the required emissions reduction — 1.8 gigatons of carbon — in 2050. A massive increase in production will be needed to meet demand because SAF is not commercially available in most countries or produced at a small scale. 

Currently only about 0.1% of fuel consumed by commercial aircraft is SAF, according to aviation consultancy IBA. 

IATA estimates 119 billion gallons will need to be produced annually to get to net-zero carbon by midcentury. Current investment commitments from energy companies and aviation partners will take production from 33 million gallons per year to 1.3 billion gallons by 2025. Effective government incentives could push production to 8 billion gallons by 2030, the amount needed to achieve economies of scale and make the fuel affordable.

SAF is currently two to four times more expensive than conventional jet fuel and produces about 80% less carbon emissions. 

“Governments don’t need to invent a playbook. Incentives to transition electricity production to renewable sources like solar or wind worked. As a result, clean energy solutions are now cheap and widely available,” said IATA Director General Willie Walsh in a statement.

The United States is among the leaders in stimulating SAF production, which is expected to reach 2.9 billion gallons in 2030 with the help of tax credits and other incentives pushed by the Biden administration. 

Walsh criticized the European Union for its SAF policy. The EU is developing a mandate that airlines fill up with 5% SAF at every European airport by 2030. IATA is concerned that decentralized production will make it difficult for energy companies to achieve the scale necessary to justify large infrastructure investments and that transporting SAF by road to various airports will undermine the environmental benefit of using SAF. 

He also accused the EU of greenwashing for not meeting pro-environment talk with action, pointing to the failure to fully implement its Single European Sky initiative, which aims to increase the efficiency of air traffic management and air navigation services by reducing the fragmentation of European airspace in which nations control various airspace blocks, forcing aircraft to take less direct approaches that add flying time. 

In a keynote speech Monday, Walsh said a Single European Sky could eliminate up to 10% of Europe’s air transport emissions using satellites and other technology. “It’s beyond embarrassing, it is a scandal for Europe that it has failed to deliver.” The situation is more upsetting because the EU takes in $5 billion in environmental taxes from the airline industry and hasn’t used it on infrastructure or SAF development, he asserted.

“Governments don’t need to micromanage how airlines purchase SAF. They need to incentivize production,” Walsh said.

Airlines are buying up all available SAF and taking guidance from SAF-specific policies in more than 38 countries to enter into $17 billion of forward-purchasing agreements for alternative fuel.

On Wednesday, Finnair committed to purchase 7 million gallons of SAF from Colorado-based Gevo Inc. over five years starting in 2027. The expected value for the agreement is $192 million, including associated environmental benefits. Finnair has a more aggressive plan to achieve carbon neutrality by the end of 2045. Gevo’s product is made from inedible corn products that are processed to create ethanol that is then converted into sustainable aviation fuel. Finnair has also made a purchase agreement with Aemetis for 17.5 million gallons of blended SAF to be delivered from 2025 to 2032. 

In May, United Airlines (NASDAQ: UAL) became the first U.S. airline to sign an international purchase agreement for sustainable aviation fuel. The deal with Finland-based Neste provides United the right to buy up to 52.5 million gallons over the next three years for United flights at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, and potentially other airports. Neste will provide United with 2.5 million gallons of SAF in the first year. United will also have the right to buy up to 20 million gallons in the second year and up to 30 million gallons in the third year. 

Neste is rapidly increasing production capacity to 515 million gallons per year by the end of 2023. The company uses renewable waste and residue raw materials, such as used cooking oil and animal fat waste for its fuel. It is also introducing renewable and recycled raw materials such as liquefied waste plastic as feedstock for its refineries.

Airbus and Linde, a large industrial gas company, announced Thursday the signing of a cooperation agreement for the development of hydrogen infrastructure at airports worldwide. Airbus has said it plans to produce a hydrogen aircraft for commercial use by 2035. The companies will work on developing a hydrogen supply chain that covers production to airport storage, including the integration of refueling into normal ground handling operations. Both companies will launch pilot projects at several airports starting in early 2023. They also will analyze the potential of SAF made from synthetically produced liquid hydrocarbons through the conversion of renewable electricity.


IATA also urged governments to work closely with the aviation industry to ensure mitigations are in place to avoid the risk of potential interference with radio altimeters, which are crucial avionics that measure the distance between aircraft and the ground and provide input to other safety, flight control and alerting aircraft systems. 

“We must not repeat the recent experience in the United States, where the rollout of C-band spectrum 5G services created enormous disruption to aviation, owing to the potential risk of interference with radio altimeters that are critical to aircraft landing and safety systems. In fact, many countries have successfully managed to facilitate the requirements of 5G service providers, while including necessary mitigations to preserve aviation safety and uninterrupted services,” Walsh said.

U.S. regulators granted 5G C-band licenses to telecom providers at higher power levels and adjacent to spectrum used for aviation radar altimeters and without precautionary steps near airports. Airlines experienced costly disruptions, including detours or delays under certain weather conditions, when wireless providers turned on the new transmitters in January. 

Countries where 5G and aviation coexist safely include Brazil, Canada, France, Thailand, the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea and Australia.

Before deciding on any spectrum allocations or conducting spectrum auctions, governments must ensure national spectrum and aviation safety regulators are working in tandem to ensure there are no adverse effects on aviation safety and efficiency, IATA said. Robust testing in coordination with aviation subject matter experts is also critical.

The trade group said national policies should ensure sufficient separation between 5G C-band spectrum and 4.2-4.4GHz frequency band used by existing radio altimeters; clearly codify and enforce the maximum power limit for 5G C-band transmission and downward tilting of 5G antennae, particularly in the vicinity of flight paths; and establish sufficient 5G buffer zones around airports. 

IATA noted that airlines with U.S. arrivals and departures continue to deal with effects from the 5G rollout, including a new Federal Aviation Administration airworthiness directive requiring them to upgrade radio altimeters that can’t filter out transmissions from outside their allotted frequency so aircraft can make certain low-visibility approaches at many airports where 5G C-Band service is or will be deployed in future. The association said the timely availability of upgraded altimeters is a concern, as are the investment costs and the lack of certainty regarding the future spectrum allocation. 

Officials said airlines should not be expected to bear the cost of replacing or upgrading regulator-approved avionics related to the deployment of 5G services.

IATA argues the FAA is imposing the upgrades despite the fact that there is no industry consensus that the timetable is achievable, particularly since the FAA has not yet approved solutions and systems providers cannot guarantee availability of the new equipment by the deadline.

“FAA’s unilateral decision to require airlines to replace or upgrade their existing radio altimeters — which are approved by both the FAA and the Federal Communications Commission — by July 2023 is deeply disappointing and unrealistic,” Walsh said in a statement. “The FAA has not even approved or certified all the safety solutions that it will require, nor have systems providers been able to say with certainty when the equipment will be available for much of the fleet. So how can there be any confidence in the timeline? 

“Furthermore, the FAA can provide no guarantee that airlines will not have to carry out further upgrades to radio altimeters as even more powerful 5G networks are deployed in the near future. Safety is our highest priority, but it cannot be achieved with this rushed approach. The FAA needs to continue working with all stakeholders collaboratively and transparently, including the FCC and the telecom sector, to define solutions and deadlines that reflect reality,” the director general said.

Nineteen additional telecommunications companies are scheduled to deploy 5G networks by December 2023.

Lithium batteries

IATA reiterated that the industry needs global standards and processes for screening and fire-testing lithium batteries so they can be safely carried on aircraft, as well as information sharing on smoke or fire incidents to improve enforcement of hazardous material shipping rules. 

Demand for lithium batteries — used to power everything from cellphones to electric vehicles — is growing by 30% per year and with it the risk of incidents involving misdeclared or undeclared lithium batteries from uninitiated shippers. Transport rules for dangerous goods require cargo owners to properly note the presence of lithium batteries so airlines can safely handle them or properly respond to an incident. Special packaging requirements also must be followed.

Lithium battery fires can spread quickly and have catastrophic consequences for an aircraft during flight. 

The FAA has recorded 365 aircraft or airport incidents with smoke, fire or extreme heat involving lithium batteries since 2006. Between September and May, 36 incidents were reported, including seven involving cargo shipments of batteries, laptops and gaming devices, said Ben Supko, executive director of the agency’s Office of Hazardous Materials Safety, during an IATA air cargo conference in Tempe, Arizona, last month. 

IATA called on governments to create a globally harmonized system for screening lithium batteries similar to the one that exists for air cargo security. All cargo that moves on passenger and cargo jets must get inspected by technology, such as X-ray equipment, or bomb-sniffing dogs. Certified facilities with secure packing locations and a secure chain of custody to the airport qualify as meeting the inspection requirement. 

Airlines also want a testing standard for fire containment pallet covers and fire-resistant containers for fires involving lithium batteries that can provide another layer of protection beyond fire suppression systems in existing cargo compartments. And, IATA said, more data on incidents must be collected and shared to better understand and manage lithium battery risks. 

Airlines have developed their own alerting system to share information on events involving undeclared or misdeclared dangerous goods. IATA in October launched a lithium battery certification program designed to encourage shippers, freight forwarders, cargo handling facilities and airlines to adhere to best practices for safe handling, storage and transport of lithium batteries, including quality management.

In addition to facilitating compliant shipments, IATA again urged regulators to more aggressively investigate and penalize rogue producers and exporters that ignore dangerous goods shipping regulations, placing aircraft and passengers at risk.

“Airlines, shippers, manufacturers and governments all want to ensure the safe transport of lithium batteries by air. It’s a joint responsibility,” Walsh said. “The industry is raising the bar to consistently apply existing standards and share critical information on rogue shippers. But there are some areas where the leadership of governments is critical. Stronger enforcement of existing regulations and the criminalization of abuses will send a strong signal to rogue shippers. And the accelerated development of standards for screening, information exchange, and fire containment will give the industry even more effective tools to work with.”

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]