General Aviation Has a Great Sustainability Story To Tell

At AERO 2023, GAMA and industry leaders explain that the work is getting done right now on an innovative net-zero future.

AERO 2023 launched in Friedrichshafen on April 19 with a focus on sustainable aviation. 

In fact, we are already doing it, according to key industry leaders from ZeroAvia, Daher, Textron eAviation, Pilatus, and Elixir, at the General Aviation Manufacturers Association’s luncheon. “GA is the solution to this,” said Kyle Martin, GAMA vice president of European affairs.

The event focused squarely on illuminating that message so that those who were there could spread it beyond the walls of Messe Friedrichshafen—and beyond the confines of the general aviation industry into the greater world that needs to understand it. Rather than being an easy target for blame under the auspices of climate change, GA already demonstrates the innovative answers that are possible. Stopping flying is not the answer—flying in better and more sustainable ways will be.

Eric Hinson, GAMA chairman for 2023 and president and CEO of Simcom International, kicked off the lunch with his observations. “I’m going to begin by talking just a little bit about the importance of GA—and I think that’s an important message that we in the industry need to do a better job of communicating. [GA] is basically a connectivity tool that connects people, product, and services.” Those not in GA see it through a myopic view—the high net-worth individual who gets out of a jet—and not for the intrinsic value it provides to nearly everyone in some way.”

Those companies working on solutions in both short- and long-range segments include, according to Hinson, GAMA members and others which are “working on hydrogen-powered solutions…[and] working on electric propulsion to replace fossil-based fuels—and so I’m very confident that over the next 10 to 15 years we are going to see significant advancements in our capability to replace fossil-based fuel for short-range flying. That’s happening here in Europe as well as in the United States. 

Turbotech’s 140 hp regenerative turbine engine weighs just 85 kg and sips 20 l/hr at econo-cruise at 8,000 ft. [Credit: Julie Boatman]

“The other area that is equally important is really focused on long-range flying, because we’re always going to have a power-density problem for some time to come—so the long-range solution there is a lot tougher. And of course, the answer there is sustainable aviation fuel.”

There are several legitimate concerns about the current implementation of SAF both in Europe and North America. The first lies in its composition—what biosource it’s derived from, and whether corn-based, cooking oil-based, or various silage-based processes. A second concern lies in how “green” the process of making the fuel is—such as the source of electricity for the manufacturing plant—and how much energy is used in delivering the fuel from its production facility to the distribution points on airports. As Martin would sum up later in the program, in pointing out the value of the book and claim system that allows operators to take credits for SAF entered into the fuel stream: “Trucking tanks of SAF from a Neste factory in Finland to the south of Spain is not the most sustainable approach.”

A corollary to this lies in the current state of electric propulsion, which we have seen this week in several spots on the show floor at AERO—Pipistrel and H55, for two examples—but both directed at short-hop training flights and perceived by some as having limited value to the marketplace.

It’s easy for naysayers to throw rocks at these efforts, but the fact is we won’t get to a solution unless we work on the problems and try new things.

The State of GA in Europe

Martin followed Hinson at the luncheon with his insights into the status of the general and business aviation industries in the EU and UK, including the recovery post-pandemic and political elements affecting both that return to “normal” and moving forward.

“The great news is that we are powering through the COVID recovery,” said Martin. “We are showing growth across all four main product sectors, whether it’s piston airplanes for the training market, turboprop airplanes for the transportation and air services market…the business jet market is growing and coming back—it’s being held back a bit by supply chain constraints, but many new products are coming to the market and that will help boost numbers in the years ahead. And the helicopter market’s finally coming back.”

In addition, traffic numbers reflect the normalizing of the GA industry, with 2022 IFR traffic numbers showing “strong growth versus 2021,” as Martin noted.

Martin also emphasized the value of GA in sustainability problem solving: “Our industry is absolutely the incubator and the growth engine for sustainable and safe aviation technology.” Yes, it’s simply easier to innovate and iterate using small aircraft—we witness all the time how new tech in our GA cockpits “trickles up” to larger platforms until it makes it onto a Part 25 transport category jet a decade—or more—later. At Oshkosh this summer, you’re certain to see an airline captain gazing wistfully at the instrument panel on an RV-series. The most innovative solutions will happen first in the skunkworks of our GA manufacturers, the labs of small but feisty aerospace startups, and in the hangars of our kitbuilders. The first applications may be limited in scope—but that’s the point. You want to test things on a small batch first.

Industry Panel on Workforce, Energy

In parallel to the discussion of sustainability is attracting the workforce that will develop it. To this end, the discussion turned to an industry panel led by Cate Brancart, GAMA’s manager for European operations and safety. 

The panel featured:

  • Cyril Champenois, co-founder and CMO of Elixir Aircraft
  • Nicolas Chabbert, senior vice president of Daher’s Aircraft Division
  • Jane Lefley, strategy associate for ZeroAvia
  • Rob Scholl, president and CEO of Textron eAviation
  • Urs Thomann, director of technologies and processes, Pilatus Aircraft
An industry panel answered critical questions on sustainability and workforce development with a focus on the EU but with ramifications for the global general aviation industry. From left to right, Cate Brancart (GAMA), Cyril Champenois (Elixir), Nicolas Chabbert (Daher), Rob Scholl (Textron eAviation), Jane Lefley (ZeroAvia), Uru Thomann (Pilatus), and Eric Hinson (Simcom). [Credit: Julie Boatman]

Scholl’s organization—newly formed to consolidate Textron’s efforts in several future-leaning sectors—represents well the human energy derived from a company’s dedication to innovation. “We are seeing a lot of people express interest in coming to work for our organization,” said Scholl, “because everything that we’re doing right now—as you see from this group on stage—is new…For those people who want to take on the challenge in this exciting industry, these projects offer a unique opportunity to really get into something that no one in the world has done before.”

That’s a key part of the GA story we need to tell, according to the panelists.

Specifically, bringing young people into GA OEMs is another goal—and one that Elixir seems to have done naturally, with an average age of 34 or 35, according to Champenois. “We are at a turning point in general aviation,” he said, regarding not only energy sources but the way aircraft are manufactured to reduce parts count and streamline processes. “We feel that [the younger generation] was kind of lost for the past 20 years because nothing was really moving.”

A market-based approach will provide the most practical solutions. “We all know that we have the difficult challenge [ahead] to transition to the alternative fuels,” said Chabbert. “This is something that is a ‘must.’ We all know that this is on our trajectory to become neutral by 2050—it’s a key element to our strategy. But…let’s go back to the roots. What is the market wanting? ‘Cause if we’re just about to propose a bunch of technologies, I think we’re probably going to miss the main thing that we’re doing, [which] is to address the market needs.”

As for attracting new entrants to the workforce, Daher relies upon its apprenticeship program. “We have renewed our workforce, and the way that we do that is through apprentices—we have doubled the number of apprentices about every year, so it is a growing number of new people to us.” The younger generation is environmentally sensitive, he added, “so I think they are also after a project that is going to rehabilitate Earth.” Of the apprentices they engage, 80 percent transition to full-time employment, according to Chabbert.

“Agility is one thing that is going to be important,” said Thomann. “If the workforce is agile in selecting their employers, then the employers have to become agile as well.” A diverse workforce is a critical piece too—and across the industry panel, they discussed how they are helping to grow the applicant pool so that the best and brightest minds get the education they need and become visible to the companies that need their talents. Pilatus has also recently implemented better compensation strategies to help attract and retain the people it wants in the organization—instead of keeping bonuses until the end of the year, they incorporate the higher pay rate in a much more transparent way so that its personnel can plan more accurately.

In order to ensure a diverse talent pool, Chabbert added: “We need to bring in schools—I mean, it is not new, it is nothing that has not been done, it is something that we stopped doing. We have to resume and get the schools into our plans so [the students] can actually practice, and get themselves exposed to the different jobs. With the kind of diversity that we’re talking about, it is data management with a technology-driven approach.”

Ensuring a diverse talent pool begins with early education in STEM fields and increasing contact with schools to expose students to the marvelous palette of jobs that GA offers. [Credit: Julie Boatman]

Telling the GA Story

All of these topics circle back around to one critical concern: Many governments around the world appear to be moving against the GA industry, setting targets for carbon emissions that may not be realistic. If we don’t achieve those goals, will the rug be pulled out from under us? That question was the final one put to the panel—poignant at AERO because of recent movements in the Netherlands’ Schiphol Airport to propose a ban on business jets, and there’s legislation in France seeking to reduce or stop short-haul flights—or the insane idea we might ban flying altogether in order to achieve net-zero.

To combat this, we need to take control of the narrative. “We have to educate… we are not a victim…we have to be proud of saying our story—and say it loud and clear: that is what we do and why we do it,” said Chabbert. “We need to make our story and to praise it.”

Lefley concurred: “I agree with you—I think the industry faces an existential threat ultimately, which is why new technology like what ZeroAvia is doing is so critical. One of the things we need to do is to educate governments and the public about the fact that people are doing this already, and that it can be done safely.

“I think it’s easier to use technology than to force everyone to stop flying,” she concluded.

It’s a global story we must tell, and the examples set in the EU—making progress on regulatory coordination and public understanding—will provide a roadmap for the innovation of the industry to drive us forward.


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