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An Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-900 in San Francisco. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

Does Boeing’s Next ecoDemonstrator Alter The Aviation Sustainability Picture?

Boeing revealed its latest ecoDemonstrator aircraft on Thursday, June 3. In a briefing with reporters, the American manufacturing behemoth outlined a number of new projects that it plans to test with the aircraft.

Boeing will retrofit an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-9 with a number of new technologies in order to test how each project performs in the real world on regularly scheduled flights. The aircraft will also help Boeing collect environmental data from airports around the United States to share with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with whom Boeing is partnering to alter climate modeling and long-term forecasting data.

This new ecoDemonstrator will feature a number of climate-focused tests to study ways for Boeing to make aircraft more efficient. For example, Boeing will study whether it can use recycled carbon fibers recovered from its composite airframe manufacturing in-cabin sidewall panels to make the sidewall, and therefore the aircraft, lighter, making the aircraft more efficient by reducing weight. The planemaker is also conducting ground tests on a new compound called CF3I to replace the Halon 1301 compound, which extinguishes engine fires but has also been found to be incredibly damaging to the ozone.

Boeing will also use the ecoDemonstrator to conduct a number of non-environmental tests to improve overall aircraft comfort and safety. The manufacturer is testing new modified fuel vents that shoot air straight down, creating what Boeing calls “a curtain of air between seat rows” to “further prevent airborne particles from traveling throughout the cabin.” The 737’s right engine will feature a more efficient nacelle to make the engine itself quieter, making the flight more comfortable for passengers and potentially increasing the number of noise-restricted airports Boeing can fly its aircraft into.

Possibly most importantly, though, Boeing says all of its ecoDemonstrator flights will be operated by a blend of traditional and sustainable fuels. All flights will contain roughly 30% of the sustainable jet fuel, which Boeing claims reduces CO2 emissions by 75% throughout the fuel’s life cycle.

Boeing’s Moves Toward Efficiency

Boeing has long been searching for ways to make its aircraft more efficient, making them easier for airlines to operate by reducing costs of fuel. As airlines, governments and intergovernmental agencies alike have increased pressure on airlines and manufacturers to reduce emissions to combat climate change, manufacturers like Boeing have been at the center of the debate on how exactly to reach the International Civil Aviation Organization’s goal of slashing aviation’s emissions by 50% by 2050.

In aviation, making fundamental changes to how airlines do business is never an easy task. Carriers are always weary to accept changes that have not been heavily tested and have not had any track record of success. This goes for just about anything – buying planes from new manufacturers, getting into new markets and overcoming massive market challenges are always risky tasks.

Planemakers like Boeing, therefore, have a big role to play in moving the aviation industry closer to carbon neutrality. This ecoDemonstrator program, which, over 8 planes and 10 years, has tested 195 different projects, is an integral first step in bringing new sustainability measures to market. Not only is Boeing helping collect information for organizations like NOAA, it is also proving to airlines – which have operated six of the eight ecoDemonstrators Boeing has used since 2012 – that its new ideas can work in normal operations.

Boeing also has the advantage of relying on airframes that airlines are already familiar with. From an economic and PR standpoint, it is a much safer bet to, for example, fly a 737 or a 787 Dreamliner modified to be more efficient and running on sustainable fuels than it is to take bets on entirely new concepts with no precursors.

Where Boeing Falls Behind

Yet Boeing’s tests have also been criticized for being notably muted. While it has been able to test a number of different projects and technologies, Boeing has only had eight major ecoDemonstrators including the one announced this week, which means that its technologies, while proven in regular operations, have not proven the longevity airlines often demand before making significant changes to their operations.

Boeing has also only committed to making its planes capable of operating on sustainable fuels by 2030. While these fuels do release fewer greenhouse gasses than their traditional counterparts, they do still release some gasses, and its remarkably inefficient production creates a lot of waste relative to the amount of fuel created.

Meanwhile, Airbus is well ahead of Boeing in creating new zero-emission aircraft. The manufacturer revealed last year its plans to produce three new zero-emission aircraft powered by hydrogen to be released by 2035. While these planes similarly do not have the track record that other planes which have been around for a while – notably which Boeing will modify – they are produced by a well-respected planemaker with a relatively superb safety record, so it is very likely that airlines, especially those close to Airbus, will be willing to take these aircraft for government incentives or to use as marketing tactics for climate-focused fliers.

Boeing is even a bit behind unproven manufacturers. When United Airlines announced its order for new Overture planes produced by Boom Supersonic, it committed to flying the aircraft entirely with sustainable aviation fuels. Deliveries for those planes are set to launch in 2029, years before Boeing is planning on having all of its planes ready to accept the fuels.

It is important to make the distinction that United has for some time been a leader in aviation sustainability. It was the first major airline to commit to being fully carbon neutral – before the ICAO 50% reduction deadline no less – and has lead competitors like FedEx down similar paths.

It still does feel, though, that Boeing is falling behind its competitors. While this new ecoDemonstrator will be running tests for nearly six months – it starts its flights at the end of June and won’t stop until December – Boeing has yet to make any big moves to rival those of Airbus or even the Boom Supersonic/United combo.

The tests Boeing is running this time around don’t hint at any big changes to come, either. While Boeing is rumored to be working on new highly efficient aircraft like the “767-X” and “757 PLUS,” they have not committed to any more substantial long-term goals.

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