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L2b Aviation Global Aviation News: Navigating Environmental Regulations in Aviation with Sergi Giménez and Matthieu de Varax 

In recent years, there has been a growing movement in Europe to reduce air transportation for environmental reasons. This pressure has led to significant discussions and regulatory changes impacting the aviation industry. 

L2b Aviation members Sergi Giménez of Augusta Abogados in Spain and Matthieu de Varax of Odi-Sé Avocats in France provided details of recent environmental regulations and pressure on airlines in Europe in the recent L2b Livestream Event. This blog post discusses the key takeaways from this discussion and how these changes may shape the future of the air travel industry.

New environmental regulations in France and pressure across Europe 

Recently, France has led efforts to reduce carbon emissions, aiming to achieve a 40% reduction from its 1990 levels. The Citizens Convention for Climate, held in 2019 and 2020, played a pivotal role in formulating solutions to meet these goals. 

The Convention consisted of 150 randomly selected citizens designed to represent the French public and create solutions across five areas to reduce carbon emission levels. Two significant proposals emerged from this Convention concerning transport: First, reducing flights within France if there is a low-carbon alternative available, such as trains. Second, commercial and non-commercial aircraft that emit over 1,000 tons of carbon domestically per year must compensate for these emissions. 

The first proposal aims to use a means of transportation different from air travel and was implemented through the Décret no. 2023-385 on 22 May 2023 after receiving the EU Commission’s approval in December 2022. The French provision bans domestic (i.e., intra-France) flights if there is a suitable train alternative between the same cities and certain conditions are met:  

  1. Availability of a direct train connection between the same points
  2. The journey should be less than 2 1/2 hours
  3. The cost and the frequency should be comparable
  4. Passengers must be able to spend at least eight hours on-site at the destination 

The aviation industry must address these newly enacted regulations; however, there is no simple path to understanding how they will affect carbon emission levels. French domestic flights account for a very small percentage of France’s emissions (4%), so reducing these flights will have a marginal effect on France’s global greenhouse gas emissions. 

Additionally, this regulation only applies to a few flights due to the extensive high-speed train infrastructure that serves the country. These shorter flights often connect to flights with destinations longer than two and a half hours, and in these cases, these flights are exempt from the regulation. As a result, airlines may not want to continue servicing these connecting flights since most passengers are not connecting fliers. It won’t make economic sense for the airlines to have these connecting flights on the schedule if only a few passengers will pay for these seats. 

Another important point is that the jurisdiction of the French and Spanish governments extends only to domestic flights. As soon as the aircraft crosses a border, the regulations do not apply. Since it is easy to cross borders in Europe, these flights are under the authority of the European Commission and (as far as aviation is concerned) the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, which will have to pass its own regulations if the measures are to be extended to flights within the EU. 

The social and media pressure on aviation is increasing in France, and business aviation (purposely renamed “private aviation”) has been in the spotlight lately. 

Spain has also considered similar regulations, showing a shared commitment to reducing carbon emissions within the European aviation sector. In December 2022, the Spanish government filed a Bill of Act with the Parliament, which elapsed due to the general elections held in July 2023. Nevertheless, the ongoing negotiations to form a new governmental coalition expressly contemplate the introduction of these measures similar to that of one year ago. If the coalition negotiations result in a new left government being named, ruling bodies will probably want to pursue these measures. 

These regulations underscore European governments’ determination to curb carbon emissions, even as they grapple with passing legislation within proposed timelines. Additionally, these measures have high public support.

Navigating the impact on the aviation industry 

Environmental action by citizens and governments can impact the aviation industry in several ways. Despite the industry’s efforts to reduce its impact on the environment, many perceive the industry as a major source of climate change. Actions taken by governments to curb aviation emissions, such as regulations and increased taxes, impact the profitability and long-term sustainability of airlines. 

This public and political pressure increases on private aviation because many perceive it as an exclusive service and a business where people can afford more taxes. However, raising taxes on airlines and airports places an additional burden on an industry already operating on low margins. This results in airlines reducing non-profitable flights, which ultimately doesn’t serve customers who want to fly to their destinations.

Misguided pressure on aviation and the industry’s response 

The pressure on airlines to reduce their environmental impact is massive and not new to the industry. The public views airlines as a major contributor to carbon emissions (thus ignoring the true share of aviation in global carbon emissions, which is about 2.5%), and the response of political pressure has strained the aviation industry for some time. At the same time, airlines are serving the public’s desire to fly to destinations rather than using rail or other transportation. 

This is not to say that the aviation industry is not taking its share in the global effort to reduce carbon emissions, but rather the opposite. All actors of the industry are committed to reducing emissions in any way they can, including using new technology. However, one must acknowledge that airlines (those that effectively operate aircraft) have very limited leverage on carbon emissions. The real breakthrough in jet fuel consumption and carbon emission already has come and will continue to come from aircraft and engine manufacturers. They work hard and invest billions in the development of lighter aircraft and new-generation engines that have reduced fuel burn. 

Electric propulsion might be part of the answer on (very) short-haul flights; however, long-range aircraft will continue to burn jet fuel (whether carbon-based or synthetic) for quite some time. 

Here lies another important leverage for the reduction of greenhouse gases: the use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Most airlines have already started to use SAF and are willing to use more; however, further investments by producers, airports and governments are required to ensure that this new generation of greener fuel is available at more airports in sufficient volumes. 

As for business aviation, it’s important to point out that only 0.04% of worldwide emissions come from business aviation flights. This highlights the relatively small impact these restrictive regulations have on the broader emissions landscape. 

Nonetheless, because the industry is smaller and more agile, it has been a forerunner in creating new and greener technologies. For example, the Spanish airline Air Nostrum has reserved ten Airlander airships from Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV), intending to reduce carbon emissions by 90% for journeys across Air Nostrum’s regional routes in Spain. 

European business jet operators are also committed to using more SAF. 

In response to the pressures in Europe, the business aviation industry in the United States is working to improve its image to the public regarding its environmental impact in hopes of thwarting aircraft restrictive legislation. For example, the industry-wide initiative Climbing. Fast. was announced at the 2023 NBAA Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition (NBAA-BACE). One of the campaign’s goals is to shape public perception and policymaking regarding business and private aviation, the benefit of its ads and the advances it has made to create a more sustainable future. 

Despite the challenges posed by government regulations, the aviation industry is making great strides. Innovations like more fuel-efficient planes and electric air mobility devices are already underway.

Conclusion: Balancing image and impact 

The evolving landscape of environmental issues in France and Spain and the broader discussions in Europe are reshaping the aviation industry. While these efforts to reduce carbon emissions are commendable, it is crucial to consider the nuanced impact on the aviation industry. 

The newly enacted regulations focused primarily on short-haul flights present challenges for the industry. Moreover, placing excessive financial burdens through tax increases on an already margin-sensitive sector may inadvertently hinder investments in greener technologies. 

It is essential to recognize that airlines are responding to public demand for air travel, and the focus on reducing carbon emissions should extend beyond them to manufacturers and fuel producers. With only a small fraction of European emissions attributed to the targeted sector, a balanced approach that acknowledges the industry’s strides in adopting greener technologies is warranted. 

As Europe and the United States aviation industries continue their efforts to address environmental concerns, collaboration and informed policy decisions will be pivotal in shaping a sustainable future for the aviation sector for generations to come. 

- October 2023

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