Aviation’s path to a net-zero future will pass multiple waypoints, and while many view hydrogen as a key enabling technology, Boeing is building its flight plan around fleet renewal, improving operational efficiency, and boosting the availability of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). During a media event at NBAA’s BACE show on Monday, Marc Allen, the U.S. aerospace group’s chief strategy officer, made it clear it will not be following its European rival Airbus in looking to bring hydrogen-powered, medium-range narrowbody airliners into service by the mid-2030s.
“We have shifted our language from zero emissions to zero impact [on the environment],” Allen commented. “Hydrogen might have a role, but that might be being used on the ground to produce SAF or perhaps for direct propulsion. But how can we be sure it’s truly green hydrogen and that the net result might not be worse in terms of emissions, not just CO2 but also contrails.”
Boeing is using a data modeling tool called Cascade to assess which technologies would produce the greatest benefit in terms of reducing the environmental impact of flying. “It allows you to put in all your assumptions about the future and when you see what will really move the needle you get right into changes like continuous descents [instead of step-down approaches], fleet renewal, and SAF,” he explained.
The airframer has a strong vested interest in airlines replacing older aircraft, but it is also making significant investments in building the ecosystem needed for widespread SAF use and achieving a step change in the efficiency of air traffic management to avoid fuel being consumed inefficiently.
Acknowledging that Europe’s aerospace sector has benefitted from large amounts of government support for moon-shot long-term research and development work, like the push for hydrogen propulsion, the Boeing executive questioned whether this approach will reap meaningful returns. “As long as we keep coming back to what customers actually want and driving value in everything we do, we can leave it to others to waste a lot of money on innovation,” he concluded.
Another path Boeing will not be taking is the one leading to supersonic flight, with Allen indicating the company has no regrets about withdrawing support for Aerion last year in a move that effectively marked the end of the start-up. “The art of strategy is choosing what not to do and our decision speaks for itself,” he said. “What we haven’t been able to do is to pin down what are the critical things you must believe [to bring supersonic aircraft to market] and we need a better theory of this.”
Allen added that the recent type certification of China’s Comac C919 airliner was a welcome disruption to the entrenched Boeing/Airbus market domination. “A duopoly is hard because every campaign feels strategic and every loss seems existential,” he reflected.
At the same time, Boeing now has an interesting side bet on the autonomous eVTOL aircraft its Wisk Aero joint venture with Kitty Hawk is working on. Allen predicted that autonomous flight will start with small aircraft like Wisk’s planned four-seater with its 90-mile range, but this won’t become a reality until the end of the 2020s.
“Technology innovation doesn’t stop, and now that aviation is an adult industry where the change looks different [from younger industries] there is no reason to think that innovation won’t continue to disrupt us,” he concluded. “We start with digital, sustainable, and autonomous as our innovation pillars and these run through everything we do and how we do it.”