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Green Aviation And Space Industry

The days ahead will be different – exasperating and also exciting – for the aviation and space industry. Read here

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The aviation sector may have taken a drubbing during the pandemic and may still not have recovered, but, recent events have triggered a significant and determined reset. Results: determined initiatives for cost-reducing technologies, consolidation of businesses and restructuring of balance sheets. Most noteworthy is the new green push.

Elon Musk’s and Jeff Bezos’ foray into space opens new vistas for adventure aviation. SpaceX, Elon Musk’s space company is already viewed as a Tesla of the skies. While Tesla’s mission to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy” is indeed grand, SpaceX’s is no less grand – to use its rockets to make humanity a “multi-planetary space-faring civilisation” by establishing a colony on Mars. According to PitchBook, a data-analysis firm, SpaceX is valued at $74bn, up from $46bn in August 2020, ranking it as one of the most-valuable startups in the world. Further, Starlink service being tested in parts of America, Britain and Germany, using its satellite networks, will beam fast internet access to every corner of the planet.

Related initiatives for reusability of space vehicles has pushed established companies to change. United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, has trimmed costs so that the prices for its Atlas V rockets are down from $225m per launch to just over $100m. Arianespace, a European firm, has also cut prices for its Ariane 5 and hopes the Ariane 6, due to make its first flight next year, will be 40% cheaper than its predecessor. Starship has a carrying capacity more than six times that of the Falcon 9 and is fully reusable, and is intended to be far cheaper than SpaceX’s current rockets – projected to cost less than $2m per launch.

International Air Transport Association (IATA) immediate outlook is not so rosy with it’s prediction that only 30 of the world’s 700 or so airlines would survive the crisis without government help. Indeed, carriers that failed to get bail-outs have fallen like ninepins – Flybe, Europe’s largest regional airline, in March 2020; Virgin Australia in April and Latam, Latin America’s largest carrier, in May. Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, aptly quipped: “The easiest way to become a millionaire is to start out as a billionaire and then go into the airline business.” But, that has only spurred further cost-cutting and energy-saving initiatives.

Society too has now become more reflective. People are sensitive about travelling out and there is a movement that is promoting travelling by transport like trains as safer, more environmentally-friendly and cheaper. Movements like Flight Shaming may not be globally popular, but they do find resonance with young people. It is forcing aviation companies to experiment with sustainable aviation fuel technologies, the only catch being their higher cost. Bio-fuels being produced from crops, algae and waste are possible but expensive – making their commercialization difficult. The one significant area of innovation is the use of hydrogen and electric for powering aircrafts. Hydrogen is used in zero carbon fuel cells with the only byproduct being water vapor. No doubt this will entail aircraft redesign because of the logistical issues and the lower calorific value of hydrogen, yet it is worth pursuing – as indeed companies like Zero Avia are doing.

The days ahead will be different – exasperating and also exciting – for the aviation and space industry. Once the world restores to its original form, there will be a pent-up demand for travelling to all manner of extraordinary destinations including outer space. Hopefully, along with sustainability there will also be a restoration of aviation sector bottom-lines.

The author is a former Secretary GOI.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Raghav Chandra

Former Secretary Government of India

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