Going Direct: Emissions, Technology, Politics And Common Sense

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As a seeming parting shot in his tenure as chief executive, President Obama took a jab at aviation by singling out the segment for its contribution not to global commerce, understanding and progress, but, alas, pollution.

The mechanism behind the move is a little convoluted. In essence, President Obama directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to file an “endangerment finding” citing airplanes as being dangers to the planet (and, one assumes, bunnies and chipmunks) by contributing to greenhouse gas pollution. The notion that many thousands of airplanes circling the globe at any given moment might be causing pollution is laughably obvious—more on this in a moment—but the finding still puts in motion a series of requirements that will result in new rules being created by the EPA that will regulate greenhouse gas emissions from large jet aircraft.

I’ve warned in the past about legislating aviation policy—it’s nice when it goes in your favor, but unbearable when it doesn’t—but this is even worse than policy policing. The move, which amounts to an executive order, as there’s no legislative, judicial or civil review or recourse, directs technological progress, which might or might not be possible.

In order for large jet engines to be cleaner, they need to be more efficient. I’m wondering if the President and his advisors are confusing coal plants and high-bypass turbofans here. While the operators of coal-power-generation plants have an economic incentive not to modernize—coal is cheap and anti-pollution equipment is pricey, the makers of large jet engines have ample incentive to innovate and clean up their act without any governmental meddling. In fact, this is exactly what they’ve been doing for decades.

The progress that we’ve seen in the manufacturing and technology of turbine engines is one of the unsung success stories of the last 25 years. Engines from industry titans like GE and CFM are orders of magnitude more efficient and cleaner than comparably powerful engines of 20 years ago. This is not because government made them do it, but because their customers made them do it, by promising to buy a competitors’ more efficient (read: cheaper to operate) engines if they didn’t keep pace.

This progress has worked its way down to the turboprop world, where GE’s revolutionary turboprop engine, slated for release in 2018, will boast a 20% improvement in efficiency. That is a staggering figure, and it wasn’t achieved because the government mandated it, but because it gave GE a leg up against the competition, namely, Pratt & Whitney with its legacy PT6, which hasn’t seen much progress in the past 50 years. That will surely change, as Pratt & Whitney has to be feeling the competitive heat as its customers no doubt ask about FADEC and efficiency improvements.

The other side of the coin—both sides are troubling—is that manufacturers are essentially being penalized for the great work they’ve already done in making their engines cleaner and more fuel efficient, as they’re getting no credit for that progress and they’re left with slimmer margins on which to improve their current products. And when you look for ways to make progress in turbofan technology, you use microscopes.

So, short of there being a technological breakthrough in how turbine engines work—wouldn’t that be nice?—the manufacturers are going to have to push the limits of temperatures to burn fuel more efficiently. This process, by the way, is what they’ve been doing for a half-century, and doing very well. The idea, however, is to push those limits only so far as the technology allows those limits to be safely pushed and not so far as the regulations demand.

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