A Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787 powered exclusively by environmentally friendly fuel completed a long-haul commercial flight for the first time in history. On 28 November 2023, the flight departed from London and arrived in New York using sustainable fuel (SAF – Sustainable Aviation Fuel), consisting mainly of waste food oil and animal fat.

This news may not be comparable to the first flight of the Wright brothers’ flyer, but it is still a significant breakthrough in aviation and its transition towards sustainability. The environmental impact of the aviation sector is a much-debated topic, so it is natural to wonder how much pollution the aviation sector really causes. In reality, only one third of the sector’s total emissions can be attributed to fuel, an area that, moreover, has improved tremendously in recent years thanks to cutting-edge engines and solutions that have considerably reduced consumption. For example, in thirty years, i.e. from 1990 to 2020, the adoption of increasingly efficient engines was estimated to have reduced fuel emissions by 43%, according to a study by the German Air Transport Association (BDL)[1]. At the same time, however, demand for air transport has grown tremendously and the number of flights has practically tripled, with the prospect of further growth in the coming years.

Keep in mind that nowadays we are talking more and more about sustainability going well beyond “just” CO2 consumption, and including all the actual substances released into the air. For this reason, achieving the target of reducing CO2 emissions by 2050 will inevitably have to include action on airport facilities, which are responsible for the remaining two-thirds of the sector’s emissions.

Therefore, in order to comply with the new emission standards, airports will have to invest more and more into modernization, clean energy (especially photovoltaic panels), internal electric mobility solutions and focus on choices that take advantage of the circular economy. With this in mind, in the pursuit of a sustainable future, I see smaller airports having an advantage over large hubs.

The “smaller” airports, in fact, can adapt with considerably reduced costs and time compared to the large hubs, which require much more demanding structural work. This is an important advantage, also in light of the non-inclusion of air mobility in the PNRR, a choice that means that there is a lack of financial support for the efficiency and renovation interventions of Italian airport structures, regardless of their size.

The PNRR is probably a missed opportunity, but the urgency of the adjustments does not change. Even the recent COP28, which took place in Dubai between November and December 2023, focused on these issues, reaching an agreement on the decarbonization of air transport. The question of how to finance the measures remains open. A lack of public capital inevitably means that only private capital can be counted on, which makes the process somewhat more complicated.

In fact, the leverage to attract potential investors is almost exclusively that of the direct economic return of their investment, excluding parameters of public utility or the implementation of regional and national development policies, which are instead considered in public investments, just like direct returns. However, where the potential for growth is appealing, private investors could be a very positive solution. We have small and medium-sized hubs that had growth rates of more than 100% in 2022 compared to pre-pandemic levels.

These could make an important contribution to the growth and sustainable development of regions that are still on the fringes of major transport routes today. Regions that nevertheless have significant tourism potential and, above all, are home to a good portion of the small and medium-sized enterprises present along our peninsula which, let’s not forget, represent more than 99% of Italian companies and account for 77% of national added value. [https://www.istat.it/storage/rapporti-tematici/imprese2021/Rapportoimprese2021.pdf]

[1] source: https://www.bdl.aero/de/publikation/klimaschutzreport/

Andrea Mennillo
Founder and Managing Director, International Development Advisory
Chairman Fordham University London Centre Advisory Board
Chairman Riviera Airport

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