On The Radar
Boeing this week published its 2021 sustainability report. At first glance, the document follows a pretty standard “corporate and social responsibility” format, spelling out how the aerospace giant intends to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem when it comes to aviation’s impact on the environment. Very topically, this year’s report takes particular account of the impact of the Covid pandemic on its business and the markets it serves.
But beyond the somewhat predictable headline points, the report does give some insights into how Boeing is addressing its sustainability mission. Since last year’s report, the group has appointed Chris Raymond as its first chief sustainability officer, with a brief to push this agenda throughout its global enterprise.
Unsurprisingly, Boeing presses fleet renewal as a key first step to a more sustainable air transport business. The report promises a 15 to 25 percent reduction in fuel burn and engine emissions with each new generation of airliners, with Boeing claiming to have invested more than $60 billion in technological advances, including lightweight composite materials and advanced high-bypass ratio engines. It has committed to having all its airliners be able to run on sustainable aviation fuel by 2030 and is continuing to use its ecoDemonstrator platform to advance new technologies.
So far, so-so, but what about a longer-term plan? Well, throughout the Boeing supply chain, the company is taking a holistic approach by pushing initiatives such as solar power and carbon fiber recycling. It is also investing in advanced air traffic management technology to make commercial aviation routes more efficient.
Then, on page 37, halfway through the report, Boeing confirms its intention to continue its involvement with eVTOL aircraft development through its joint venture with Wisk Aero. The commitment is significant, partly in the context of rebutting claims by rival company Archer Aviation that Boeing intends to pull out of the company, undermining efforts to bring the two-seat Cora eVTOL and a larger new sixth-generation design to market. Its future involvement had been in doubt in view of Boeing's decision last year to shut its Boeing Next advanced technology incubation unit.
Significantly, Boeing also leaves the door open to developing hydrogen-powered airliners. “The aviation industry, working with research institutions and the energy sector, needs to develop the propulsion technology, integrated fuel system for production, storage, handling and delivery of green hydrogen,” said the report. “If these technological and commercial challenges can be overcome to produce and fly on green hydrogen, those aircraft will have the potential to fly without in-flight carbon emissions.”
Rival Airbus says that through its ZeroE initiative announced in 2020, it intends to get a hydrogen-powered airliner into commercial service as soon as 2035. Boeing makes no such specific commitment in its new sustainability mission statements but arguably comes closer than it has previously to signaling this intent.