In December 2019, unnoticed by most, a potentially historic flight took place in Canada. The world’s first fully electric passenger commercial aircraft took off from Vancouver. A cynic might point out that it only had six passengers and flew for just 15 minutes but echoes of the Wright brothers or Gustave Whitehead could be clearly heard over the silent sound of its power source.
Does this event herald the beginning of a new era of aviation? One that would tackle the CO2 emissions created by carbon-based aviation fuels since those ‘magnificent men in their flying machines’ – first took to the skies in the early 1900’s?
Roei Ganzarski, owner of magniX, which designed the plane and collaborated with Harbour Air for the inaugural Canadian flight is quoted as saying, ‘This signifies the start of the electric aviation age.’ He plans to target the two million people who purchase air tickets every year for flights under 500 miles. Meanwhile, Israel-based Eviation has developed an all-electric passenger aircraft, named Alice, powered by batteries and with a new design concept for propulsion integrated into the airframe.
Aviation is one of the fastest-growing sources of carbon emissions and environmental activists such as Greta Thunberg have brought this issue to the fore. Aviation currently contributes 2-3% of global CO₂ emissions  and industry body, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), has encouraged the use of more efficient biofuel engines, lighter aircraft materials and route optimisation. Electric motors have the benefit of improved fuel efficiency and less upkeep; however, an aircraft can only fly an estimated 160 km on a lithium battery. It’s a positive step for the industry that this technology is being developed to power longer flights and to facilitate cheaper and less environmentally damaging short-haul flights.
The future and why size matters
Allport Cargo Services is avidly following and supporting the advances being made by the aerospace companies joining forces to tackle greenhouse gas emissions. Rolls-Royce, Airbus and Siemens are working on a hybrid aircraft with the E-Fan X programme, which will see an electric motor on a BAE 146 jet and is planned to fly in 2021. However, there is some way to go before electric flight makes an impact on the 80% of the aviation industry’s emissions which come from passenger flights over 1,500km.
The UK is the first G7 country to accept the goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. This will be a huge challenge for the air travel business with 4.3 billion tickets sold in 2019 and eight billion expected to be sold by 2037 . To address this, a proposal by UK climate advisors suggests airline passengers pay a levy to fund tree planting, this is alongside the UN-backed Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) , an emission mitigation approach for the global airline industry.
For the time being, it’s smaller electric aircraft that’s the focus. Technological advances will not affect the larger aircraft needed for trans-continental air cargo or long-haul flights any time soon; energy storage is too much of a limiting factor. Traditional airline fuel contains 30 times more energy per kilogram than the most advanced lithium-ion battery currently available . And while conventional planes get lighter as fuel is consumed, electric aircraft carry the same battery weight for the entire flight. Solar-powered planes have also received coverage in recent years, with the first 40,000km around the world flight  without fuel in 2016, but that is also not yet an option for commercial flight.
The idea of the ‘blended-wing-body’ , which integrates propulsors into the airframe in a more aerodynamic design is being researched, however neither of the world’s two main aircraft manufacturers, Boeing and Airbus, are actively pursuing this technology – the change is just too big to be commercially viable.
The IATA estimates that each new generation of aircraft is on average 20% more fuel-efficient than the model it replaces, and that airlines will invest US$1.3 trillion in new planes over the next decade. With safety and reliability of electric aircraft yet to be proven, these are clearly longer-term solutions.
The impact of commercial air travel
Air cargo (transportation of goods by air) is a core service offering for Allport Cargo Services. While growth has slowed  in recent years, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) says the global value of goods carried by air is still expected to exceed $7.1 trillion in 2020 – that’s 52 million metric tons of goods. This accounts for around 9%  of airline revenues and is forecast to increase 3% a year on average until 2030 .
It is estimated that 45% of the worlds cargo moved by air, actually moves beneath the feet of passengers in the hold of commercial passenger aircraft. This is an important point as it means advances in electric flight for passenger air travel will correlate for a significant part to cargo and air freight supply chains. Commercial passenger air travel is also deeply visible, understood and subject to consumer pressure for increased environmental governance. Consumer pressure therefore will have a direct impact on the environmental sustainability of air freight. For transcontinental freight this is distinctly different to sea borne cargo.
A key growth sector of air cargo is cross-border/ global e-commerce, which has increased 20% year on year over the last 15 years . The expansion of cargo services in emerging markets, developments in technology, the digitisation of the industry and falls in airline fuel costs have also accelerated this growth.
Markets where Allport Cargo Services has heavy presence will grow faster in the next decade than world average annual air cargo growth, such as domestic China, intra-East Asia, East Asia-North America and Europe-East Asia. The largest flows of air cargo globally are in and between East Asia and the US. 
Issues for the supply chain
For the supply chain industry, working with retail and fashion clients, there are many environmental issues to address and the industry must adapt quickly and form strategic partnerships. Customers are already starting to vote with their feet. Increased price pressure, global trade tensions, increasing industry regulation and the demand to speed-up movement across the globe all needs to be balanced with environmentally sustainable business practices. Freight forwarders need to change their thinking and implement new business models that address the issues of rising CO2 emissions. A digital approach to air cargo services is required to ensure a more environmentally friendly and cost-efficient supply chain and is at the heart of our Technology-enabled Supply Chain®.
Allport Cargo Services – reducing our carbon footprint
Allport Cargo Services is striving to achieve an absolute reduction in CO2 emissions, as well enabling a reduction in our customers’ ‘like-for-like’ emissions as part of our Environmental, Social and Governance strategy, ‘Doing well by doing good’, which is at the heart of our definition of what success means to us.
We can’t avoid the fact that transportation and many of our customers’ core industries have an environmental impact. We are focusing on improving operations to increase environmental efficiency be that our own modal operations, or those that we freight manage on our customers’ behalf.
We’re implementing a range of initiatives, including: using electric vehicles for urban deliveries and developing comprehensive CO2 tracking for our customers and our own business. Our award winning packaging optimisation product PACD is physically reducing CO2 air, road & sea miles through increased density of product shipped. There is also our highly developed EcoAir product – a blend of ocean and air freight legs that leads to a direct reduction in CO2 emissions over direct air freight and a mainstay of our air freight offer, especially in the fashion and retail industries. We are also extending our already significant use of rail as a modal shift strategy to reduce CO2 emissions.
Electric flight is exciting but is one small step towards reducing CO2. Advances in technology mean that this will be a reality for short haul flights within the lifetime of Millennials. What can be achieved on long haul flight remains to be seen. In the meantime optimisation and efficiency is the key, while we strive for Electric Vehicle technology to surpass our global environmental imperative.