Funding Future Flight: Aviation Forum Austria 2023

The official event poster for Aviation Forum Austria 2023

Flying under the banner “TECHNOLOGY – COOPERATION – GREEN SKY” the triple-pronged focus of the 2023 Aviation Forum Austria shows off the ambition of the country’s flagship annual aviation industry event. Organised by the Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG), every year the Forum brings together industry representatives, ranging from giants in aviation manufacturing and top RTOs, to leaders in national defence and the Austrian national government. With five of SUSTAINair’s partners based in Austria, it was fitting for a team member from SUSTAINair project coordinator AIT to attend, with Rudolf Gradinger participating in a panel on day one of the 2023 forum, held within view of the UN building complex in Vienna.

Technology – Cooperation – Green Sky

Proceedings opened with keynote speeches, including words from Thomas Grohs, Chief Engineer from Airbus. Airbus has some truly ambitious goals for the next two decades, including building SAF capabilities into 100% of their aircraft by 2030, reducing the intensity of carbon emissions from their craft 46% by 2035, and ultimately to play a leading role in  hitting net-zero carbon emissions across the industry by 2050. Every single aspect of the aviation value chain was taken into account, including air traffic management, and even going as far as minimising emissions produced on the runway during taxiing. However, Grohs was careful to underline how even for the world’s largest manufacturer of airliners, working alone just won’t suffice when it comes to sustainability: “it’s in our DNA to collaborate”.

A second keynote from Ron van Manen, Managing Director at Dutch aviation growth fund, Luchtvaart in Transitie, injected further optimism, expounding public-private partnership’s power to solidify the moon shot of a net zero future for aviation. The self identified technology optimist, reiterated a litany of European aims to protect the climate, stating simply that “not doing it, is not an option”. Despite the challenges, there’s so much to be excited about when looking through the eyes of the LiT MD. Recently unfeasible solutions to reducing aviation emission, such as hydrogen, are now solidly on the table as near-future alternatives. The Dutchman doesn’t shy away from any hard truths either, indeed it’s still shocking when he reminds us ⅓ of all aviation emissions stem from short-haul flights less than 1,500km in distance. Yet disruptive solutions, if properly funded, could solve the problem in years, not decades, cutting out emissions from such journeys almost entirely. It needs the power of international will to succeed though; to avoid what Van Manen calls a ‘Thomas Edison effect’ – “brilliant lightbulb, no electricity.”

The role of the Netherlands as both a laboratory and lobby for climate policy is a fascinating one. Arguably the ‘biggest of the small countries’ (with Austria not far  behind), they’re already investing millions in developing potential future technologies, particularly hydrogen-powered flight. At the same time, the Dutch are asking difficult questions about the extent to which shorter-haul journeys should be outright limited – much to the chagrin of the aviation lobby. Even this struggle between free market principles and climate policies feels simpler to resolve when reminded of climate investment’s benefits. For example, Van Manen is clear that LiT’s activities will create a breeding ground for startups and innovative new businesses, not to mention put the Netherlands at the forefront of what seems an inevitable future for international transport. Why waste time maintaining an air fleet and system that will soon be outdated? It’s a model for Europe as a whole, to wholeheartedly embrace its very own ‘Apollo programme’ of carbon neutrality by 2050. 

Thomas Grohs (Airbus)
Damage Detection Aerospace Sandwich Structures
aircraft dismantling and recycling
An aircraft being dismantled for recycling © Shutterstock
Automation across the value chain could be the key to hitting net zero by 20250 © Shutterstock

Carrots & Sticks for Growing European Aviation

Two panels of researchers, engineers, military, and government personnel from Austria tackling aviation topics fielded questions on the speed and scope of the sector’s transition ambitions. Henriette Spyra, who leads Innovation & Technology at Austria’s Ministry of Climate Action, Environment, Energy, Mobility, Innovation and Technology (Bundesministerium für Klimaschutz, Umwelt, Energie, Mobilität, Innovation und Technologie, BMK) brought up some of the low-hanging fruit being ignored by the sector, such as supporting legislation to supplant short-haul flights with improved train journey possibilities. Spyra sees policy nudging travellers to greener transport as the clear solution to this issue; simplifying things to the extent that it becomes “the natural choice” to go by train rather than plane. The transition agenda of the climate ministry is careful to emphasise the urgency of this research, not to mention the challenge of having to do it all at once.

...we need these innovations now

Rudolf Gradinger, AIT / SUSTAINair
Photo Credit: © RTDS Group

Austria remains a small player in terms of the aviation industry, even compared to the Netherlands. It does, however, retain an outsized role as a hub for European research and technical innovation. It’s nonetheless a challenge, as Rudolf Gradinger from SUSTAINair reminded the panel, to maintain Austrian (or even European) competitiveness in this sector with costs continuing to rise, and a growing lack of necessary skilled persons. Continuing Austrian growth in this sector is going to require one thing and one thing alone: funding. 

Gradinger pointed to both EU and national-level funding as absolutely necessary to building the sustainable future for aviation. Without it, projects such as SUSTAINair wouldn’t be able to evolve ‘circular aviation’, and prevent continued downcycling of precious materials when we need exactly the opposite. Additionally, Gradinger gave special thanks to the EU-funded Clean Sky project, created in 2007, which he credited with really having kick-started involvement in the topic of sustainable aviation for many of the people and firms continuing to carry the torch for innovation in this area today. European innovation is already bearing fruit, increasing efficiency and producing massive improvements to process and production today, all thanks to research funding. “It’s really great,” says Gradinger, “because we need these innovations now.”

The Leichtmetallkompetenzzentrum Ranshofen GmbH (AIT-LKR) forms the AIT Center for Low-Emission Transport, a subsidiary of the Austrian Institute of Technology (AIT)

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