The engineering marvels making planes greener

We explore how ongoing advances in plane design are helping aviation become cleaner and greener.

plane flying over sunset

The less fuel a plane burns, the less impact it has on the environment. This is why the aviation industry is constantly innovating to make planes lighter, more aerodynamic and more efficient. But what’s actually changed to ensure fewer CO2 emissions per flight?

Continued innovation means that today’s engines are twice as efficient as those introduced just 20 years ago. These advances are still coming: one manufacturer claims that its latest turbofan engines could cut fuel use by up to a further 16%.

We’re also working hard to make electric and hybrid electric aircraft a reality. While we are still years away from flying off on our summer holidays aboard an electric aircraft, small battery-powered electric aircraft have already circumnavigated the globe, and hybrid electric aircraft (which pair electrification with traditional jet fuel), are already being tested for commercial use.

A plane’s shape also makes a huge difference to its fuel efficiency. While many of these changes will probably only be noted by the keenest plane spotters, some of the concepts currently in development could mean a radical restyle for the next generation of commercial aircraft.

Airlines are also working to make their existing fleets more efficient, with improvements ranging from aerodynamic wingtip devices that can cut fuel consumption by up to 5%, to performance improvement packages developed by plane manufacturers.

Fuelled by advances in material design and manufacturing, each new generation of aircraft has become lighter. The next generation of aircraft – many of which are set to take to the skies before 2030 – will be, per-passenger, the lightest yet, thanks to the extensive use of materials like carbon fibre, lightweight metal alloys, and cutting-edge composites such as graphene. This makes a huge difference.

Roughly half of a new aircraft is built using carbon fibre plastic and other composite materials, making these planes around 20% lighter than their aluminium equivalents. New manufacturing methods like 3D-printing, and even new painting techniques, are further helping to ensure that even the biggest planes keep getting lighter and greener.

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Lighter aircraft

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Annual fuel savings

Across the cabin, airlines have been making lots of weight-saving tweaks, ranging from the introduction of lightweight seats and trolley carts, all the way to using lighter paper for inflight magazines. One airline calculates that even a 0.45kg weight reduction per-plane could mean a yearly fuel saving of 53,000 litres (enough to fill 350 bathtubs).

There are weight-saving changes taking place in the cockpit, too. The leather flight bags carried by pilots contain all the paper manuals and route maps they need for their flight. Many airlines are now adopting electronic flight bags, which not only do away with heavy documents, but also enable pilots to use real-time information to make adjustments that can contribute to a more efficient flight.

These changes are just the start. As the industry works to reduce net emissions, we’ll see many more engineering advances and weight-saving innovations designed to propel us towards a low carbon future.


There are also things that you can do

Discover the small changes you can make that together help make a big difference.