Air show's new buzzword: Sustainability

The air show here can often feel like aviation's World Cup, with makers of jet fighters, commercial aircraft, helicopters and private planes from around the globe vying for bigger-faster-stronger bragging rights.

But the high price of oil has led to a new marketing approach this year, and there is a ready audience for it, as fuel costs have hurt airlines around the world, including Delta and American, which reported steep losses Wednesday.

Manufacturers are trying to bolster their green credentials by playing down the importance of speed and lauding initiatives to reduce the environmental impact of flying, as well as the cost.

Inside Boeing's exhibit, for example, the star attraction is a 75-gallon tank of bright green algae, the potential feeding ground for a jet fuel substitute.

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All over Farnborough sit recycling bins, sponsored by Bombardier, declaring, ''A new planet, a new plane,'' referring to its new CSeries jet, which it says uses 20 percent less fuel than its competitors.

Even the tail of the enormous double-decker Airbus A380 promises, ''A better environment inside and out.''

Sustainability is the new buzzword at Farnborough this year, and it is echoing as loud as the planes screaming by overhead.

''It's a matter for survival,'' Giovanni Bisignani, director-general of the International Air Transport Association, said Wednesday at an environmental conference.

With global air traffic expected to swell in coming years, government regulators, including the European Commission, are applying pressure to make planes quieter, cleaner and more efficient, and threatening penalties if they fall short.

''Our customers are under hellish pressures to come up with improvements,'' said Tom Williams, an Airbus executive vice president.

There are no cheap or easy solutions. Lighter materials, new fuels and other innovations that promise to make planes more environmentally friendly mean more expense and development time. That includes the billions that engine makers are spending to develop new products.

All that could make it hard for the manufacturers to offer the discounts that their big customers have come to expect, potentially wiping out the savings that such planes might offer.

''It's a bitter split,'' Williams said.

Bisignani said the industry had been late in realizing that it had to do more to stress its environmental credentials, leaving it open for attacks from environmental groups and threats of new taxes from Europe and elsewhere.

Some executives here said the criticisms were unfounded. ''Aviation should not be treated as a pariah,'' Tony Tyler, chief executive of Cathay Pacific, said at the environmental conference. ''Everybody understands our obligations. Everyone is taking it very seriously.''

The new focus this year is in sharp contrast to the Farnborough show in 2006, when Boeing's technology experts insisted in staff meetings that it was impossible to develop fuels that could substitute for the kerosene that powers jets.

Now, Boeing is conducting tests with four airlines - Virgin Atlantic, Japan Air Lines, Air New Zealand and Continental - to see what may work best as an alternative fuel. British Airways, meanwhile, has invited energy producers to bring it fuels that it will test in laboratory conditions, its chief executive, Willie Walsh, said here.

Corn-based ethanol is out of consideration because it freezes at high altitudes and does not provide the power a jet needs.

For its part, Boeing wants a fuel that does not threaten the food supply, taint water or require that land be cultivated, said Billy Glover, Boeing's director of environmental performance.

Scott Carson, chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, likens the industry's quest for suitable biofuels to efforts to send a man to the moon. ''We didn't know how to do that then; we don't know how to do this now,'' Carson said, in a video that runs continuously at Boeing's display. But, he added, ''we'll do it, just like we did then.''

Development efforts are ''so promising, and so close'' to developing a new biofuel that could be derived from algae or other plant life, like Jatropha, a tropical plant whose seeds are rich in oil, Carson said Tuesday.

New fuels are just part of the effort. Engines are an important element, since they can yield improvements in fuel economy and reductions in carbon emissions. General Electric showed a new engine, developed with a French partner, Safran, which it said should be ready in 2016.

Separately, Pratt & Whitney unveiled its PW1000G, which has a geared-turbo fan that some experts think is the wave of the future. The lower-spinning fan uses less fuel, generates less heat and noise and releases less nitrogen oxide than other engines.

GE does not yet have a buyer, but the Pratt & Whitney engine will be featured on Bombardier's new 100-seat jet, the CSeries, which was announced in Farnborough on Sunday. Bombardier, which also owns Learjet, halted development on CSeries two years ago so it could focus on making it more efficient.

The company claims the CSeries, set to go into service in 2013, will be 20 percent more fuel-efficient than comparable jets. Boeing makes a similar claim for its larger 787 Dreamliner, set to be delivered to customers starting next year.

Aircraft manufacturers are also shifting away from traditional materials, like aluminum and steel, to plastic composites made from carbon fiber, and metals like titanium.

But demand from aircraft companies for these materials may well outstrip supplies, said Philip Toy, who is managing director with the restructuring firm AlixPartners of Southfield, Michigan. ''There are no inexpensive substitutes for these materials right now,'' he said.

Boeing is being deluged with requests from airlines and other customers for tips on saving fuel. One move involved replacing the traditional brakes on its 737 jets with carbon-fiber versions, saving 800 pounds, or 360 kilograms, per plane, Glover said.

But airlines need to think in bigger terms when they design new aircraft, said Williams of Airbus. His company is beginning to mull the shape of the next-generation A320, which is not due until around 2017.

''Do you do an interim solution?'' he said, based on the plane's current design, ''or a final solution'' that could dramatically save fuel, but require more-extensive testing to win government certification.

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