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United Technologies Sponsored Series

Sustainable Innovation: The Patience to Get it Right

Global Aviation: Innovation and the Modern Silk Road


Seldom does the average airline passenger consider the fine points of aircraft design or jet propulsion technology while attending the ritual of boarding an airplane. Unless you’re an aviation nerd, the typical traveler rarely gives jet engines and airframes a second thought, let alone consideration of the global impacts commercial aviation. It’s all just there.

To the untrained or disinterested eye, there isn’t much difference between a 757, a 737 or an A320. Maybe that’s the point. Long gone is the sense that jet travel is “cool” or novel. Once an adventure, air travel today is a mundane, yet essential, fact of life.

Modern commercial aviation is a social utility, the “real World Wide Web." Like other utilities, the industry faces increasing consumer demand, regulatory requirements, shifting economics, climate change and sustainable resource management.

A First World problem?

Flying may be commonplace for some. But in a world where it’s estimated that 80 percent of people have never flown on an airplane, or where 663 million people lack access to clean water, concerns about the future of aviation may seem an issue for the developed world to sort out.

In fact, aviation is an essential component for sustainable development as emerging economies grow a burgeoning global middle class.

This is particularly true as humanity becomes a predominantly urban species. In 1950, when the nascent airline industry plied the skies with propeller-driven aircraft, the global urban population numbered 776 million people, most of whom never dreamed of flying in an airplane. Goods and people moved mostly by ship, truck and rail.

In 2014, more than 3.9 billion people lived in cities. By 2050 the urban population is expected to reach 6.4 billion people. If 80 percent of the world’s population has never flown on an airplane, this urban diaspora portends the massive growth expected in aviation. As people in emerging economies pour into cities and join the global middle class, they will gain access to the connectivity and opportunity of the urban environment.

Sustained innovation: Collaboration vs. disruption

Like the oft-used term “paradigm shift," “disruption” is an expression overused to the point of either being misunderstood or losing much of its significance.

Clayton M. Christensen, scholar, author and management consultant, says: "Disruption is, at its core, a really powerful idea. Everyone hijacks the idea to do whatever they want now. It's the same way people hijacked the word 'paradigm' to justify lame things they're trying to sell to mankind."

An entire book can be written about the real meaning of disruptive innovation (in fact, many have). Christensen developed his theory of disruptive innovation more than 20 years ago. Considered by some as the darling of Silicon Valley, arguably the home of "disruptive innovation," Christensen's ideas draw criticism -- particularly in the notion that once a technology matures, it becomes "good enough." This, Christensen asserts, leads to standardization and modularization -- dissipating the competitive advantage of early leaders. In 2006, Christensen forecast the imminent demise of the iPod, as well as the failure of the iPhone, arguing that what is true for Apple is evident as well in aircraft.

A full discussion of Christensen's theories is well beyond our sustainable business scope here at 3p. I argue, however, that where he falls short is in his assessment of the aviation industry and its significance in global development, trade and culture. The aviation industry has a history of disruption, but it is collaboration and connectivity that continue to drive innovation. It is a model that stretches back decades.

Take, for example, the Boeing 707: In October 1958, the Boeing 707 jet airliner entered commercial service. The “disruptor” of its time, the airplane made its inaugural flight as the Pan American Airlines Jet Clipper America, flying from New York to Paris. The venerable airplane wasn’t the first passenger jet on the scene, but its impact is felt to this day. More than any other single machine, the 707 transformed civilian aviation.

Technically, the 707 made high-speed, high-capacity, long-distance jet travel economically feasible. Culturally, the sleek jet ushered in a new era of “cool” in the public consciousness, complete with Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me” riding the radio waves. With the 707 came the shrinking world to which we are now accustomed.

The jet age was born.

The engine makes the jet, innovation makes the engine

No jet age happens without a jet engine. The four twin-spool, axial flow Pratt & Whitney JT3 engines powering Pan Am’s first Paris-bound 707 were revolutionary for their time. The engines were a product of years of research, testing and collaboration.

Soon after, the airplane was retrofitted with the JT3D, Pratt & Whitney's first production turbofan engine. As the name suggests, a turbofan engine incorporates a fan at the front of the engine. This fan allows much of the airflow to "bypass" the engine core, significantly increasing thrust without any additional fuel burn. The bypassed airflow also decreased engine noise over the turbojet design.

The basic turbofan jet engine design is now the industry standard for commercial aviation. The concept of the jet engine is many decades old, but through sustained innovative effort, it continues to improve. A turbofan engine produced today is typically 15 percent more fuel efficient than a decade ago, delivering 40 percent lower emissions.

But there is little time to rest.

After 20 years of development, at a cost of $10 billion, Pratt & Whitney has introduced the PW1000G family of jet engines, taking the turbofan to the next level. Airbus delivered PW1000G-powered A320s to carriers in Europe and Asia earlier this year. The geared turbofan design reduces fuel burn over current turbofan engines by 16 percent, regulated emissions by 50 percent and overall noise footprint by 75 percent.

The geared turbofan engine is a huge leap forward in meeting the goals of the FAA's Continuous Lower Energy, Emissions and Noise program. All three components work together. In 1970, the "noise contour" at Chicago's O'Hare airport -- the area affected by departing and arriving aircraft -- was 89.3 square miles. By 2020, thanks to innovations like the PW1000G, the noise contour is projected to decrease to 17.6 square miles.

The jet age goes global, meeting the challenge of a new century

In April of 2010, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano spewed volcanic ash high into the atmosphere, closing off large parts of European airspace for eight days. For a month, various sectors were closed due to ash. An estimated 100,000 flights were canceled, and 10 million passengers were delayed.

Just-in-time supply chains were disrupted across two continents. Producers of seafood and flowers in Africa had to lay off workers. Tourism collapsed. Economic losses rose into the billions.  If there was any doubt, this single event made clear how fundamental aviation is to the global economy and to people's lives, whether they've ever flown in an airplane or not. It is the "modern silk road."

Air travel connects people, creates economic opportunity and support sustainable urban development. But it isn't all pie-in-the-sky. Significant challenges remain if we are to meet the development and climate goals outlined by United Nations -- and aviation will play a huge role in a low-carbon future.

The aviation industry continues its legacy of sustained, collaborative innovation in a troubled, changing world. There is great opportunity in adversity. The key to success is the same everywhere: perseverance, collaboration and innovation.

Image credits: Storm Crypt (via Flickr)

Data visualization: Wolfram Alpha

Infographics: UTC

Thomas Schueneman headshot

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

Read more stories by Thomas Schueneman