This week, Qantas announced that passengers will soon be able to fly non-stop between Perth and London – the first ever air service to link Australia and Europe directly. Seats on the new route will go on sale in April 2017, with flights starting in March 2018.
It’s a journey made possible by the technological advancements of long-haul aircraft – in this case, the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner.
The Dreamliner (with capacity to carry 236 passengers) will take 17 hours to complete the 14,498-kilometre journey. It’s the longest Qantas route and the third-longest passenger flight in the world.
Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce described the announcement as a watershed for travel, tourism and trade. But while the travel opportunities are indeed potentially game-changing, the environmental benefits are less so.
The non-stop footprint
Of course, non-stop flights are generally better for the environment than flights that stop en route. Flying a long-haul route non-stop produces less greenhouse gas than stopping along the way, largely because the aircraft can take a more direct route.
The additional fuel needed to carry the weight of extra fuel required for ultra long-haul flights does, however, contribute to the overall emissions of the flight (and may very well lead to an increased cost to passengers).
Fuel efficiency is crucial, because aviation fuel (kerosene) is the primary source of aviation emissions. Researchers have calculated that total aviation emissions in 2006 were 630 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. By 2050, those emissions are projected to be between 1 billion and 3.1 billion tonnes, depending on the growth in air traffic and the success of efforts to reduce emissions through fuel effiency, biofuels and offsetting.
A flight’s environmental impact grows exponentially whenever the aircraft is required to make a stop. During take-off, more fuel is consumed (and more emissions produced) than at any other stage of the flight. On short flights, take-off accounts for as much as 25% of total fuel consumption.
Fuel efficiency from Perth to London
So is the advent of super-range passenger aircraft the solution to the aviation emissions problem?
The rate of fuel consumption varies widely between aircraft models, ranges and manufacturers; fuel efficiency even varies between aircraft of the same model, depending on the condition, age and use of the aircraft and its engines.
Boeing estimates that its 787 family “uses 20-25% less fuel on a per passenger basis than the airplanes they replace”.
The 787-9 Dreamliner itself offers a range of efficiencies in terms of kilometres travelled and stops required, while carrying more passengers and cargo than its predecessor, the 787-8.
So, as noted above, the Perth-to-London non-stop route will generate fewer greenhouse emissions than the most direct existing routes, which stop in various Middle Eastern locations including Dubai and Doha.
But how much of an impact will this have on the reduction of aviation emissions? Not very much.
The availability of super-long routes does nothing to curb the ongoing expansion of short-haul aviation. For instance, roughly half of all flights within the European Union are shorter than 500km, while hundreds of short-haul routes are available in the United States. These routes typically fall a long way short of the most fuel-efficient flight length, which has been estimated at 4,300km – or three-quarters of the way from London to New York.
Bear in mind that air travel is the most carbon-intensive form of travel. Regardless of what the aviation industry achieves in terms of emission reductions, these will be overwhelmed by its predicted growth.
This growth will outweigh the improvements delivered even by dramatic measures to cut emissions. What’s more, those measures are a still long way off – and if you’ll pardon the pun, improving aviation’s environmental impact will be a long haul.