#A380

Qantas’ 2050 zero-emissions nonsense

Woke? The only way Qantas can cut net CO2 emissions to zero by 2050 is to cease operations. In what world does CEO Alan Joyce AC think he is somehow ahead of the aerospace technology curve? In any event, it’s highly unlikely he’ll be CEO in 2050.

Joyce said the Qantas and Jetstar will cap net emissions at their current level from next year, cutting it gradually over the next 30 years. A big pronouncement but by sheer virtue of upgrading an ageing fleet (phasing out 747 Jumbos) the efficiency targets are a walk in the park, not some tremendous virtuous milestone. Burning less fuel is good for the airline’s bottom line. Lower fuel burn means fewer emissions.

The ultimate irony is that aircraft manufacturers are doing their utmost to “carbonize” the fuselage and wings in order to save weight (Boeing 787, 777X, A350, A330). Even the next generation engines are featuring extensive use of carbon derivatives because of the fuel efficiency benefits that are created by them. Put simply, even in 2050 carbon and fossil fuel derivatives will be major source materials for future planes. Maybe in Joyce’s mind, that won’t count.

Aerospace technology is utterly amazing. To think that a 650t Airbus A380 can take off, fly 12 hours and land in complete comfort. Or that one fan blade on a 777 jet engine can theoretically suspend a locomotive from it without snapping such is the tensile strength. Now we can fly 19 hours nonstop. 30 years ago, half that distance was achievable.

Bio-fuels exist. However, if the airports across the globe don’t provide bio-fuels then his zero emissions pledge is shot. According to the IEA, aviation biofuel (aka sustainable aviation fuel (SAF)) is forecast to be 20% of all aviation fuel by 2040, from 5% in 2025.

The IEA stated,

SAF are currently more expensive than jet fuel, and this cost premium is a key barrier to their wider use. Fuel cost is the single largest overhead expense for airlines, accounting for 22% of direct costs on average, and covering a significant cost premium to utilise aviation biofuels is challenging…Subsidising the consumption of SAF envisaged in the Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS) in 2025, around 5% of total aviation jet fuel demand, would require about $6.5 billion of subsidy (based on closing a cost premium of USD 0.35 litre between HEFA-SPK and fossil jet kerosene at USD 70/bbl oil prices).

For commercial aviation to be a success, cost is always a factor. Great advancements like the Concorde died because of sustainable economics, not because of the accident. The vaunted Boeing Sonic Cruiser died at the concept stage because airlines couldn’t accept the commercial economics afforded by those higher speeds. So we have been stuck at 900km/h for decades and for decades to come.

Yes, there have been talks of electrically-powered planes (several developmental prototypes exist) but the technology to make them fly 10,000km at 900km/h with 300+ passengers on board won’t be met by 2050. Airbus intends to

make the technology available to fly a 100-passenger aircraft based on electric and hybrid-electric technology within the 2030s timeframe.”

Don’t buy into the malarkey that 10% of Qantas passengers carbon offset their travel. If one does the math, less than 3% of miles are actually covered by such virtue signalling. Either way, more than 90% don’t care to pay for their carbon offsets.

737 MAX is more Audi TT than Ford Pinto

1452871681-787.jpg

The NY Times has come out with a hit piece on Boeing and the ill-fated Boeing 737 MAX. Yet to CM, the problem seems more an Audi TT or Mercedes A-Class than a deliberate case of manufacturing flaw that was the Ford Pinto.

Recall that Ford deliberately placed the fuel tank to save money, knowing that it could spontaneously combust if hit from the rear. Yet the financial boffins deduced that the cost of making the move to a safer position would not be worth the risks of such a scenario playing out. Boeing never designed the 737 MAX to have inherent instability. The computer modelling power now is such that the most extreme scenarios would have passed muster. The FAA felt confident that the plane was airworthy to approve it.

Audi had an issue in 2000 with the TT. The sleek 2-door sports car was built off the VW Golf platform. However, the car was found to be prone to uncontrolled spins which killed 5 drivers. Audi was forced to install a spoiler and more sophisticated driver aids (software) to prevent the problem from occurring again. Same for the Mercedes Benz A-Class which failed the elk test conducted by a Finnish motoring magazine in 1997. It flipped when trying to avoid a dummy elk on a test track. This forced Mercedes back to the design room to install stability software to overcome the problem and restore its reputation for safety.

This is essentially what has happened at Boeing. While the press wishes to point to evil doings, the reality is that poor internal communication on such a big project was to blame, not willful negligence. Planes are pushed well beyond what they would ever be likely to encounter in real life. Take the 787’s wing flex test at 30% more than the plane would ever encounter while flying in the worst conditions.

It makes absolutely no sense for Boeing to take such massive risks on the 737 MAX, its #1 selling aircraft, by making it in such a way that it had a high propensity to crash.

The Boeing 737-400 series had inert fuel tank issues where near empty scenarios could cause the vapor to ignite in the centre tank that could lead to a deadly explosion. Several did. Some in the air. Some on the tarmac. These planes weren’t grounded. World aviation authorities, like Australia, issued advisories on how to mitigate the risk of it happening.

The 737 also had a rudder hard-over fault which led to several crashes. The design flaws were rectified when one pilot was able to recover the near-death experience. It was a faulty rudder actuator which could stick under certain temperatures.

The list of 787 airworthiness directives (from fire issues, wings, flight controls to landing gear) stands at 52. FIFTY-TWO. Sure a 787 has not crashed yet but where have the authorities been trying to ground the type until it has no ailments at all? Do they need a crash to rally into action? Or do they look at the issue on its individual merits? The 737 can fly without this AOA safely, which is why the FAA still allows its operation.

Having been a former aerospace analyst, this is the first time in a very long time CM can remember that a virtual global ban was put on any aircraft type. When Qantas flight QF32 (an Airbus A380) had an uncontained engine failure which ruptured the wing tanks and severing hydraulics, the airlines grounded their own planes as a safety measure, not the authorities. Singapore Airlines suspended its A380 flights for one day before resuming operations.

When AA587 crashed in Queens after the tail and engines sheared off, Airbus A300s weren’t summarily grounded. When AF447 crashed into the ocean off the coast of Brazil, A330s weren’t grounded as a precaution. It was pilots not paying attention to basics protocols, becoming overreliant on systems.

Ultimately the market will decide on the 737MAX. The plane has a 4,000+ unit backlog. Even if airlines wanted to change to A320neos, the switching costs would be prohibitively expensive in terms of pilot certification, maintenance and joining the end of an equally long queue. The order book is unlikely to suffer widespread cancellations.

Airlines run on razor-thin profit margins and the extra efficiency the MAX will offer over the existing fleet is why airlines want them now. The new LEAP-X engine technology is a once in 50-year event. The engines offer more power, 15% better fuel economy and lower emissions. The components are now ceramic matrix composites (CMC) which allows the engine to burn hotter and increase performance without suffering extra fuel burn. Nippon Carbon is the sole supplier of this magic material.

There has undoubtedly been a breakdown in communication with the FAA and Boeing. This engineering flaw can be safely encountered by software. While the NY Times has tried to over-exaggerate the fault in design, the reality is that all aircraft have engineering limitations. The 737 is a 50 years old airframe with over 1 billion passenger miles.

CM has stated many times that pilots have become too reliant on safety systems. AF 447 was a perfect case in point. When these glass cockpits with all manner of electronic trickery go wrong, pilots only need first principles to fly.

CM is sure that Boeing will recover from this incident and 737 MAX deliveries will continue as they had. The press just seems too eager for click bait, not understanding the complexities of developing new aircraft.