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An aircraft is taking off in the cloudy sky from Tegel airport in Berlin,
Taking off for a green future?Image: AP

'Greening' aviation

November 12, 2011

Flying is as efficient as a hybrid car, according to Bill Glover, Boeing's environmental strategist. Speaking at an APEC meeting in Honolulu, he also says Boeing is well prepared for the demands of the emerging markets.


Bill Glover, vice president for environment and aviation policy at Boeing, spoke to Deutsche Welle at the APEC summit in Honolulu about the future of the aviation industry, "green growth" and efficient aircraft.

Deutsche Welle: "Green growth" has been one of the major issues at the APEC summit, but can it really be profitable for the aviation industry?

Bill Glover: The experience at Boeing is that it is profitable and it's just part of a well-run business. If you think about saving energy in your factories - is that green or is that just good management, good economics? It's both.

The attention, when you put on your "green eyes" and say I'm going to look for green growth and green opportunities, is just another perspective and it uncovers inefficiencies. That's what environmental impact is. It's waste - the opposite of a well-run business. So green growth fits with a well run business.

You are talking about the general business idea, but what about specific products?

On specific products: Yes, the time is here and everybody recognizes that. There's a lot of progress being made to find better materials and renewable fuels to drive efficiencies in products. What was good enough yesterday is not good enough today. And we're looking at things that are really driven by transformative situations, like wind power.

Bill Glover, vice president for environment and aviation policy, Boeing
Glover says filling planes to capacity makes them as efficient as hybrid carsImage: DW

But your newest aircraft, the Dreamliner, won't be profitable for a few years.

Yes, but you know, planes are like that. They are complicated - some more complicated than others, some take longer than others, so turning a profit in a commercial airline business is always a big risk. We're on track to get where we want to be with the 787 and the 747-8, two new airplanes that we recently introduced into service.

We have great sales, over 800 787s on order, and we have the opportunity to fulfill those and build on that order base and I think as people experience that airplane, the 787, it will only get better.

Considering the subsidies the governments of many countries provide for green growth, how can you establish an internationally level playing field by creating a free-trade zone, which is a focus of this conference?

The thinking is to get in place rules that everyone can live with. Earlier this year, an OECD agreement called "Aircraft Sector Understanding" was reached. It levels out the financing for export credit used for airplanes. But there is always more to do because no government can afford to pump money into an industry forever. Certainly, with the current economic situation governments are being very careful.

How can air travel, which is often accused of being one of the most energy-inefficient forms of travel, be green?

Two Boeing jets
Per passenger-mile, flying is more efficient than its reputation, Glover saidImage: AP

If you just look at it from a standpoint of efficiency, it is very hard to get an airplane to fly - it does take energy to do that. However, on a passenger-mile basis, it's extremely efficient. In fact, flying virtually any of our planes, in normal service, now means air travel is about as efficient as a hybrid car - on a passenger-mile basis, when we fill most or all of the seats.

As an industry, we continue to drive efficiency through better products, and better ways to operate them. The latest thing is to change to sustainable aviation fuels so we can lower the carbon footprint of fuel. That will bring the whole thing down by a factor of 50-80 percent.

What is the timeframe for using these fuels?

These fuels are in use now - but only on a limited basis - because we don't have the supply chain in place yet. There are a number of people working on the scale-up options. In the next few years we expect we get that first 1 percent and, hopefully, it will accelerate from there.

And the way to go is with smaller, lighter aircraft or with bigger ones to get more people per plane?

The Boeing approach is that we have super-efficient airplanes in various sizes. If you are connecting two markets where you can fly 150 people and fill every seat, then you want a plane of that size. If you are connecting two markets where you know the route can sustain 300 people, you want a plane for that.

Are planes like the Airbus 380, which can carry over 550 passengers, competition for you or a completely different approach?

A Lufthansa A380
Airbus takes a different tack with the A380 than BoeingImage: Lufthansa

A different approach. We looked at the super-large market and our view was and still is that the investment required for that sort of aircraft is bigger than the market space demands. It's a size question again. We thought, we could do that, but we also thought that filling some of the other market demands was a better business opportunity and a more efficient solution.

Are you specifically aiming for the Asia-Pacific market with this strategy?

We look all over the world all the time, but the Asia-Pacific market is very important to us - it's why we're here at APEC now. The Asia-Pacific market is growing very fast. It's a market that has a whole lot of variety. And our approach is, let's make sure we have super-efficient aircraft, with the latest technology, to match all that variety, especially in new markets. They won't immediately become 500-passenger markets. They start out smaller, usually. But then as the market grows, the dynamics change.

So, have you shifted your attention from the trans-Atlantic market to the Asia-Pacific?

No, I wouldn't say we've shifted our attention. Certainly the transatlantic market has a slower growth rate than the transpacific market, the same as in domestic US or intra-Europe markets. That doesn't mean that we ignore them. They are still the two largest markets in the world for aviation, but they demand a different approach.

Author: Christina Bergmann, Honolulu

Editor: Sean Sinico

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