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The Future of Aviation - keynote at ZAL Innovation Forum Hamburg

The future of innovation in aviation will be dominated by three words: EMOTION, SPEED and SCALE.


Travel has always been driven by emotion, by the deeply rooted human desire to explore, experience, engage.  

85% of humanity lives in emerging markets and most have yet to experience their first flight.  

Future growth in aviation will be driven primarily by those living in the poorer parts of the world today, by their desire to experience lifestyles that those in developed nations take for granted.


I am not referring here to supersonic air travel or space travel – both of which will continue to be exotic and unusual for the next 20-30 years.

Just look instead at the speed of recovery of airline ticket sales the moment that COVID restrictions relaxed, as I predicted.

And this speed is of course driven by emotion.  

(By the way I also warned for years in various books and on this website / global keynotes etc of the risks to the aviation industry from new viral pandemics).

We will also see massive acceleration in speed of innovation in the increasingly urgent race towards carbon zero flying.


The investment required to deliver a new world-class passenger aircraft is so vast that only 2-3 companies have the ability to do so.

And that will continue to be the case in 2050, outside frenetic innovation by hundreds of companies in drone-like short range e-vehicles.

The same applies to massive infrastructure that will soon be needed to carry the world’s aviation fleet towards alternative fuels.

* "How AI Will Change Your Life - A Futurist's Guide to a Super-Smart World" - Patrick Dixon's new book on AI is published in September 2024 by Profile Books.  It contains 38 chapters on the impact of AI across different industries, government and our wider world, including the impact of AI on the aviation industry and air travel.

Most debates on future aviation trends are about timing

Most board debates about the future of aviation are not about what is going to happen but are about timing.

The future is usually obvious to those in a given industry – megatrends driving change over several decades.

And yes, sudden events also crash into strategy, especially in aviation.  Large volcanic eruptions, COVID, war and so on.

World of aviation can change faster than you can hold a board meeting

The world of aviation can change faster than you can hold a board meeting, which is why boards of airlines need more than one plan, more than one strategy, to manage risk.

The future of aviation will be all about agility, dynamic strategy, rapid adjustment.

But many aviation megatrends are evolving rather slowly

But at the same time, many aviation trends are changing more slowly than you might imagine.

For example, there are still 446 Jumbo Jets / 747s flying the world – a plane that first took off in 1969. And the average age of the global aircraft fleet is 11 years.

There are 23,000 planes in active use globally, another 11,000 sitting redundant in the desert somewhere, and only 2700 new planes are sold each year.

Even if every new plane from 2030 was powered by hydrogen, impact would be gradual 

What this all means is that even if – say – every new plane from 2030 was hydrogen powered, with all the infrastructure in place, it would take until at least 2045 to begin to make a major impact.

So we need to run much, much faster towards radical change, if we are going to achieve major CO2 reductions in aviation emissions by 2050.

And every month of delay can only mean even greater pressures in future.

Traditional carbon-burning planes are already highly optimised

The trouble is that as with the auto industry, traditional carbon-powered aviation is already highly optimised and has been for a couple of decades.

We have already seen 80% improvements in fuel efficiency of aircraft engines from 1940 to 2022, and we will not see a further 80% improvement.

With aircraft the limits on innovation are imposed by many factors which cannot be changed such as laws of aerodynamics, air pressure on surfaces, shape of human body, and fuel properties. 

Other industries leaving aviation behind in speed of transition to carbon zero

However, while aircraft remain similar today in many ways to what they were 20 years ago, the rest of the world has moved on, particularly in relation to climate change.  

The speed of transition away from carbon-based fuels has fallen far behind the auto sector for example.

Deloitte has calculated that the percentage of carbon emissions from aviation could grow form 2.5% today to over 22% by 2050 as more people fly and as other industry sectors decarbonise more rapidy.

The trouble is that many proposals to make aviation more sustainable cannot be rolled out at large enough scale, and directly impact other climate change measures.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) is not fully sustainable

We can expect huge investment by fuel suppliers and plane manufacturers in Sustainable Aviation Fuel, but this cannot be the answer. 

It’s a similar technology to biofuels to power vehicles, but that has already created huge competition for food.

10% of all global grain is already burnt in vehicles, including 33% of the US maize harvest each year, just to produce 30 billion tons of diesel or petrol, still only a fraction of what US vehicles use in their engines.

At the same time, 1 billion people experience hunger regularly.

Not enough feedstock in the world to make SAF

SAF is made from waste such as used cooking oil, but there is not enough of such materials, nor will there ever be.

And when non-ideal materials such as wood shavings are converted to SAF, 87% of the energy in the raw material is wasted. 

But whatever is used to created SAF means using the output of farmland or forests. 

That means creating a direct link between food, farm and forests on the one hand, and demand for flying / energy prices on the other.

But we've already seen how damaging this can be in the biofuels industry for cars and trucks.

If oil prices rise, then biofuel prices rise, food prices rise, land prices rise, woodland prices rise.

More than 360 million tons of Sustainable Aviation Fuel would be needed a year

Only 200,000 tons of SAF was made in 2022, not even enough to power 0.1% of all flights.

The world would need 450 billion litres of SAF to power 65% of flights by 2050 according to the IATA, or 360 million tons a year.  

You can be sure that the only way to achieve that would be to feed a gigantic SAF industry with just about any type of bio material, displacing all kinds of other farming or woodland activities.

A much more interesting aviation fuel for the future is green hydrogen

Hydrogen-powered flights are nothing new – the first took place in the 1950s.  

Hydrogen contains 2.8 times the energy per kilogram than carbon-based aviation fuel, but this very light gas needs four times the space for storage.

That means less space for passengers and cargo.

The storage also has to be under high pressure, and at very low temperature in the case of liquid hydrogen.

That means a host of innovations will be needed to allow hydrogen-fuelled passenger flights.

Hydrogen easy to make but huge energy needed to make enough for aviation

Hydrogen is easy to make – just pass electricity through water, in the right way, and the results is hydrogen and oxygen.

And when burn the result is just water, so if use green power in the firsrt place to split the water, hydrogen becomes the ultimate green aviation fuel.

But once again the challenge is immense.

To replace 360 million tons of aviation fuel would take 128 million tons of green hydrogen (there is no point in using coal or gas power to split water).  

But making even 70 million tons of green hydrogen would consume the entire power output of the EU (3,600 terawatt hours) according to the International Energy Agency.  

Hydrogen for aviation fuel will be in competition with hydrogen for domestic heating, industry etc

Just as Biofuels for the auto industry will be in competition for the same feedstock as Sustainable Aviation Fuel, so we will also see direct competition for green hydrogen.

Hydrogen is an obvious alternative to natural gas for home gas boilers, industrial heating and other uses.

Indeed, without green hydrogen it is hard to see how entire cities that are heated now using natural gas will be able to convert easily to green power.

So what this means is that the scale of hydrogen production globally is likely to be vast.

Costs of green hydrogen will fall rapidly compared to traditional aviation fuel

Hydrogen can be up to 6 times as expensive as traditional aviation fuel depending on scale of hydrogen production and the source of energy used, but hydrogen will fall in price relative to carbon-based fuels for several reasons.

Firstly, expect higher, universal carbon taxes on aviation fuel.  Future generations will think it absurd that in 2022 it was still the case that a car delivering passengers to Schipol airport had to pay fuel tax of EU3 or more per gallon, while the plane refuelling at the same airport was being charged zero fuel tax.

Secondly, the technology will fall in cost with scale of production faciliites. The hydrogen revolution has not yet begun.

Thirdly, the cost of green energy will fall.  A key feature of hydrogen production is that it converts spare power into a long term energy store.  

And there will be a lot of spare power in future.

It’s already the case that in some parts of the EU on very windy and sunny days there is too much power for the national grid to cope with.  

Indeed, over the last few years there have been several occaisions when energy prices became NEGATIVE in nations like Germany.  

In other words, short periods when companies were being PAID to turn ON their electrical machines, to stop the national grid from burning up.

So hydrogen production is a great way to store surplus energy for future use.

We are still only in the first hour of the first day of the global solar revolution

I predict that a very significant proportion of green hydrogen production will be powered by solar by 2045.

Solar cells in 1975 were 400 times the price today, and we are just at the start of scaling up globally.  

Today’s solar cells typically only capture around 20% of solar energy, but we can already see ways to double efficiency.

What is more, we now have the technology to be able to transport power over 5000 kilometres with very little power loss. This is a radical innovation.

In comparison, alternating current power lines are very inefficient, fizzing away in wet weather, and creating all kinds of other local effects.

It means that in theory the whole of the US can be powered from 100km by 100km of Arizona desert, using existing technology.

Think of Elon Musk's scale of enterprise in launching 16,000 satellites to provide ultra fast global broadband at low cost.

Imagine that scale of vision and investment, innovation etc multiple a hundred times, and you begin to see what is likely here, and the speed at which it could happen.

An area equivalent to 120,000 square kilometres of Sahara Desert (1.3% of total) would also be enough to powr the entire world.  

Yes of course, that means huge investment in power storage as well as in solar.

Projects on such huge scale are indeed very hard for the human brain to imagine, but history tells us that humankind has often delivered in ways that a previous generations regarded as totally impossible.

Just one example of that is the scale of the aviation industry today, compared to what my own grandmother might have imagined when she first started practicing as a physician in the early 1920s.

Another is the growth of digital.

How massive steps can be triggered by small government decisions

The truth is that the vast scale we need will be driven not only by mega projects but also by 100,000 smaller decisions, many of which can be made in a few hours or days, at very little cost to the person making them. 

Here is just one decision, announced on 10th November 2022.  

It cost the French government nothing to make, and will deliver as much new solar power as 10 new nuclear power stations, within the next 3-4 years.  

Indeed, fifty other governments could make the same decision in the next 3 months, creating the equivalent perhaps of up to 500 new nuclear power stations, at zero cost. How’s that?

The French government issued a new rule that all owners of car parks with more than 80 spaces have to build solar panels over their car parks, and they have around 3-4 years to do so.  

Benefits will be not only more green power but also cooler vehicles, less fuel used in air conditioning when starting a journey, and lowering the air temperature in the immediate area.  Zero visual disturbance – car parks are ugly anyway.

Car park owners may have challenges in raising the capital to do the work, but they should  find that the income will cover all interest and capital repayments, giving them pure profit after around a decade.

Expect an entire new industry to spring up overnight in France – combining loans with installation, designed especially for car park owners.

But this is just one example of how a tiny regulation can trigger huge, rapid green transformations.

So what does all this mean?

1. Expect huge investment in simple solutions to save plane energy   

Better winglets on every plane; free flying between airports rather than following congested flight paths; more efficient flight management to reduce circling above airports.

2. Expect major investment in bio-enriched fuels such as SAF

This will continue to be controversial and will never fuel more than 30% of flights.

3. Expect huge innovation in green hydrogen production, distribution, storage, refuelling and in-flight use

Some planes will use hydrogen in fuel cells to drive electric turbines; most are likely to be traditional jet engine designs burning a new fuel.

4. Expect huge investment in short range battery powered flight

Most of these planes will be vertical take-off, drone-like vehicles with multiple downward facing propellers, small passenger load, with flight times of less than 30 minutes.

For more on the future of flying taxis, vertical take off e-flights, eVTOL see here.

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