The inevitable consequence of the rapid growth in cheap flights is its effect on climate change. The European Commission reported last week that if the current rate of growth in air travel continues, it will result in a 150 per cent increase in emissions from international flights from EU airports by 2012 " off-setting more than a quarter of the reductions required under the EU's agreed Kyoto target (airline emissions are accounted for separately from domestic emissions under the current UN framework). Anyone interested in a career in aerospace today would be right to question what the industry is doing to reduce its effect on the environment.
While you might think that the launch of ever faster and bigger aircraft is only making the problem worse, the aerospace industry claims that quite the opposite is true. 'One thing is certain, without advanced engineering we would be in a much dirtier situation,' says Kenji Takeda, lecturer in aeronautics at the University of Southampton. 'Likewise, meeting the future environmental needs of the sector will depend on engineers.'
This is why there has never been a more exciting time to become an aerospace engineer. By bringing about the advances in aerodynamics and engine technology that make these aircraft a reality, engineers are the people who are paving the way for a greener future in air travel.
The heads of the European aerospace industry have this year made a commitment to cut aircraft emissions and noise levels under a scheme called ACARE 2020. 'It promises a 50 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, an 80 per cent reduction in nitrous oxides " which is also linked to global warming " and a 50 per cent reduction in noise by 2020,' Takeda explains.
Particularly innovative, he believes, is the work of engineers in reaching the targets around noise. 'Lower noise might not lead to a greener future in air travel, but it will certainly lead to a more environmentally friendly future at a local level,' he says. With the University of Southampton currently a centre for excellence for noise research, Takeda works at the very heart of the issue and points out that companies including Airbus and Rolls Royce have many engineers working in collaboration with them to come up with solutions.
'Redesigning aircraft like the A380 has meant that this huge aircraft is in the same noise band as the Boeing 777, a much smaller plane. That's purely because of engineers creating more advanced technology,' he says.
Engineering efforts are also resulting in improvements in fuel consumption. British Airways aims to have a fleet within five years that is 30 per cent more fuel-efficient than it was in 1990. 'The great thing about this is that the efforts to reduce costs of flying are aligned with making aircraft more environmentally friendly,' he says.
Meanwhile, engineers and researchers are working hard to understand the effect on the environment of the white contrails left in the atmosphere by jet engines. Like clouds, these vapour trails may prevent some of the sun's heat from escaping back into space, and therefore contribute to global warming. On the other hand, they could also have a cloud-like ability to bounce the sun's heat back into space before it reaches the ground, thereby reducing global warming. 'It's an unknown at the moment,' says Takeda. 'There was quite a bit of research around the effects of the three- day stoppage in flights over the United States around 9/11, but the results were inconclusive.'
Other areas of concern for aerospace engineers include alternative fuels and replacing machinery with electrical systems, according to the Society of British Aerospace Companies (SBAC).
Graham Chisnall, corporate director of strategy at the engineering company GKN, points to the work its engineers are doing to use composite technology instead of metal in both airframes and engines. …