DALLAS — Sustainable aircraft design has become increasingly important as climate change becomes a more prevalent issue.
Land vehicles have made significant strides in becoming more eco-friendly, but air travel has more room for improvement. Thankfully, aircraft designers also have many opportunities to enable that growth, especially within narrow-body planes.
Narrow-Body Aircraft Today
Narrow-body planes represent the most promising path forward for sustainable aircraft design for a few reasons. Most notably, they account for most air travel. While these planes typically fly shorter routes, they fly more of them.
Single-aisle planes’ popularity means advances in these aircraft would yield the largest overall impact on the aviation industry. Despite their shorter routes, narrow bodies account for nearly half of all aircraft emissions because of how often they fly.
Recent innovations also open new long-haul opportunities for narrow-body planes. Thanks to more efficient engines and lighter materials, today’s single-aisle aircraft can fly up to 4,700 nautical miles — enough to manage trans-oceanic flights. As more airlines embrace these smaller, more efficient planes to handle longer hauls, focusing on narrow-body sustainability will yield increasingly significant improvements.
Benefits of Sustainable Narrow-Body Aircraft Design
Narrow-body planes are already more sustainable than their multi-aisle counterparts, thanks largely to their lower weight. However, making them even more eco-friendly offers several benefits for airlines and aircraft manufacturers.
The biggest advantage of sustainable aircraft design is that it reduces aviation’s environmental impact. Air travel generates 720 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, accounting for roughly 2% of all energy-related emissions. It has also grown faster than road, rail, and shipping emissions, suggesting it could account for even more if the industry doesn’t become more sustainable.
Aviation must do its part if the world hopes to meet critical emissions reduction targets. Zero-emissions engine technology will be a crucial part of that goal, but the industry must also make near-term improvements. Better designs will help make fossil fuel engines more efficient and enable longer ranges for tomorrow’s electric aircraft.
Long-Term Cost Savings
Making narrow-body aircraft more sustainable also has financial benefits. Fuel accounts for 10%-12% of airlines’ operating costs, making it the second-largest expense category behind labor. Consequently, flying more efficient planes would yield significant savings.
More streamlined, lighter-weight single-aisle aircraft already provide fuel consumption savings over their wide-body alternatives. Smaller planes that use renewable energy, consist of lighter materials, and feature more efficient designs would further reduce costs. These changes would incur higher initial expenses, but the resulting savings would make up for it over time.
Sustainable aircraft design would also help airlines and manufacturers appeal to an increasingly eco-conscious market. Climate change has become a more prominent issue, and consumers have embraced sustainable spending habits. Many are willing to spend more on eco-friendly goods and services, and more than one-third have reduced their air travel to become greener.
Providing a more environmentally friendly way to fly would help capitalize on this shift. Airlines could reverse their reputation for heavy emissions and get business back from eco-conscious consumers by offering efficient flights. Manufacturers could get more airline orders by enabling these low-emissions journeys through more sustainable plane designs.
Opportunities in Sustainable Aircraft Design
Narrow-body aircraft have many paths to more sustainable design. 3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, lets manufacturers produce complex designs with newer, lightweight but strong materials like carbon fiber composites or thermoplastics. Some companies have reduced cabin bracket weight by 75% through this process.
Sustainable power sources also show significant promise. Battery-electric engines may not be suitable for air travel yet, but hydrogen fuel cells, which are more efficient, offer a viable electric alternative. Biofuels can also reduce emissions and work in current turbines with little to no modification.
Novel aircraft configurations also have potential. Early tests of V-shaped aircraft show they consume 20% less fuel per passenger-kilometer than conventional designs of the same size, thanks to reduced drag. Placing longer but slim wings on top of the fuselage and supporting them with diagonal struts can yield similar results.
Challenges and Solutions to Sustainable Aircraft Design
Despite this promise, sustainable aircraft design still faces some obstacles. Narrow-body plane designers and airlines must consider these to make eco-friendly aviation practical.
Initial expenses are the most obvious barrier to sustainable aircraft design. Fuel cells and new composite materials are typically far more expensive than conventional alternatives. However, sacrificing quality for costs isn’t a viable solution in this industry, as cheap cables can corrode under temperature fluctuations and weak fuselages pose safety issues.
Ensuring quality and sustainability inevitably means higher upfront costs, but it’s important to recognize that these high prices are temporary. Sustainable alternatives will become more affordable as organizations embrace this technology, fueling further innovation. Gradual fuel consumption reductions will also make up for these expenses over time.
Alternative power sources like fuel cells also typically mean shorter flight ranges. Fuel cells and biofuels provide longer ranges than battery-electric systems, but they can’t go as far as fossil fuels, at least within the same price range. That may inhibit the widespread adoption of green aviation until technology progresses.
Aircraft manufacturers can work around these limitations by focusing on lighter materials and drag-reducing configurations. Lighter, more streamlined narrow-body aircraft will stretch limited green power ranges further. Airlines can also take a gradual approach to sustainability, focusing on short- and medium-haul flights before technological advancements enable zero-emissions long-haul trips.
Moving away from wide-body aircraft is important for sustainability, but it introduces some practical issues. The Department of Transportation requires airlines to provide accommodating seating for passengers with disabilities, but that can be difficult in a narrower plane with less interior space.
Modular seating that can fold away to let people remain in their wheelchairs for the entire flight is one option. Providing wider rows but narrower aisles can make it easier to enable upgrades like this in a narrow-body plane. Manufacturers and airlines should consider passengers’ diverse needs when designing aircraft to provide accessibility from the beginning instead of requiring retrofitting.
Sustainable Aircraft Design Is the Future
Sustainable aviation is necessary, and moving to narrow-body aircraft for long-haul flights is an important step in that direction. Significant challenges remain, but the air travel industry can overcome these obstacles if they start thinking about how to implement these upgrades today.
Narrow-body sustainable aircraft design will help airlines save money, protect the environment and meet the needs of a shifting customer base. Before long, these now-niche trends and technologies will become industry standards. Organizations will do well to capitalize on that movement earlier rather than later.
Featured image: Boeing 737-10in Iceland. Photo: Boeing