Singapore Airlines goes green

Singapore Airlines (SIA) announced its membership of the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (SAFUG), joining 23 other airlines in taking another step towards flying greener skies. SAFUG members include Cathay Pacific Airways, Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways, British Airways, Air France, KLM, Scandinavian Airline System, Qantas, Air New Zealand and the Virgin stable of Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America and Virgin Australia. Aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus are affiliate members.

These airlines pledge to accelerate the development and commercialization of sustainable aviation biofuels. Considering there are hundreds of airlines in the world, membership is small, but it’s early days yet since SAFUG was only established in September 2008. To a certain degree, the airlines that have signed up reflect the stance of their home countries on environmental issues. The absence of American-born carriers alongside Chinese and Indian carriers is conspicuous. But the number should pick up with increased and widespread public awareness of the environment being harmed by greenhouse gas emissions and the concerns becoming more vocalized, and as pressure on operators to reduce their carbon footprint mounts. You don’t want to come across as being irresponsible.

But that’s the good boy story. There is a more urgent reason for the call to action . The threatened depletion of oil supply and the volatility of its price are warning signs that it is never too early to explore alternative fuel sources. Virgin Group chief Richard Branson was an early supporter of the green initiative and Virgin Atlantic became the first airline to test the use of limited biofuel on a flight from London to Amsterdam in 2008.

Lufthansa has started testing biofuel flights between Hamburg and Frankfurt. In Australia, a consortium comprising General Electric and Virgin Australia amongst others hopes to produce a commercial biomass jet fuel using material from the eucalypt tree by the end of 2012.

Until a viable commercial alternative is found, Green proponents and activists are putting pressure on governments to regulate carbon emissions and impose penalties for those who flout the standards. The European Union (EU) is taking the lead in setting up a carbon trading system to also include airlines in the scheme by 2012. This literally puts a price on greenhouse gas emissions, encouraging airlines to be more fuel efficient. Air travel is responsible for about three per cent of carbon emissions every year.

North American airlines are fighting the EU plan through the Air Transport Association of America and supported by the National Airlines Council of Canada. China has also expressed its displeasure. The Americans argued that this would cost American carriers US$1 billion a year, resulting in higher fares and fewer choices (as some routes may be cut) for customers. They also cited a violation of Open Skies as the EU only has the power to regulate airlines that operate exclusively inside the EU. Responding, EU spokesman Valero-Ladron said: “We don’t believe this is an extraterritorial measure, because when an airline touches down or departs from a European airport. We have the right to legislate here in Europe.” Why, in any case, should EU carriers be disadvantaged if American carriers are exempt?

To SIA’s credit, it maintains a young and modern fleet of fuel-efficient aircraft. It is the first commercial airline to introduce the Airbus A380, touted as one of the most fuel-efficient in terms of passengers carried. The average age of SIA’s passenger fleet, as of Sep 1, 2011, is six years and four months.

It is interesting how in 2009 as the world spiraled downward in a recession, airlines in their efforts to cut costs came up with a number of measures that would reduce fuel carriage. Such weight-saving initiatives include lighter crockery, galley service equipment and cargo containers introduced by SIA, which has today recognized them also as “environmentally friendly initiatives.”

Which brings us to back to where we begin: Go green, it’s the right thing to do, there are benefits, and it is necessary.

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About David Leo
David Leo has more than 30 years of aviation experience, having served in senior management in one of the world's best airlines and airports. He continues to maintain a keen interest in the business, writes freelance and provides consultancy services in the field.

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