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Written By

Giorgio Parolini
Lead – Aviation Decarbonization, World Economic Forum

Laia Barbarà
Acting Head, Climate Strategy, World Economic Forum

  • The Singapore Airshow is Asia’s biggest aviation gathering and saw some key announcements on the sustainable future of the industry.
  • The event began with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore revealing a new passenger levy to support sustainable aviation fuels uptake.
  • Here are three key points from the civil and military aviation-focused event that are important for aviation from a sustainability perspective.

The biennial Singapore Airshow was back in full swing this year, alongside acrobatic displays and adrenaline-filled take-offs.

The airshow – Asia’s biggest aviation gathering – also brought a number of announcements that will have some key impacts for both the industry and the planet in the years ahead.

Here are three key points that were announced at the civil and military aviation-focused event held in February – and why they’re important from a sustainability lens.

1. A sustainable aviation fuel levy will kick-start Singapore’s local market

The airshow started with a policy bang: the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore announced that from 2026 a new passenger levy would be introduced to support the uptake of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF).

Why it’s important: Regarded by industry as one of the key technologies needed to achieve net-zero aviation, SAF has seen a boost in popularity over the last few years, with a number of airports and airlines looking to procure increasing volumes of alternative, sustainably-produced fuel.

But with sustainable aviation fuel production being particularly costly and limited in volume, significant production scale will need to be achieved to make more SAF available globally and drive down costs.

By introducing a small surcharge on the cost of air tickets departing Changi Airport, Singapore is pooling capital to purchase SAF volumes, making those available to airlines and kick-starting the local sustainable aviation fuel market.

What impact could follow: While the policy announced at the airshow is like a mandate, it differs from the ones introduced in Europe and being developed in the UK as it does not prescribe a specific fuel volume to be supplied.

It instead targets a volume of SAF range dependent on market developments – 3-5% of the jet fuel mix will need to be sustainable by 2030 – and puts the onus on Changi Airport to collectively procure fuel, rather than on airlines or fuel suppliers. This can create a more level-playing field within airlines as the price premium of sustainable fuel is passed on to all passengers rather than to those of more proactive airlines only.

It is also one of the first major sustainable aviation fuel policy announcements in Southeast Asia. The region is becoming increasingly attractive for SAF use, with several production facilities being developed, and several fuel offtake agreements being signed – also announced during the airshow.

Last year, the World Economic Forum’s First Movers Coalition team organized a roundtable in Singapore to dive deeper into the challenges and opportunities of scaling up SAF in the region, and we will continue engagement in Asia over the coming months to discuss how to accelerate local investment in SAF.

2. New aircraft orders to improve fuel efficiency

A number of Southeast Asian carriers committed to purchasing several short- and long-haul aircraft to be delivered in the coming years. While most passengers aren’t familiar with individual plane features, a young and modern fleet can be a selling point for airlines. After all, who doesn’t love travelling on a newer, quieter and more spacious plane?

Alongside passenger comfort, there’s often a less obvious driver behind fleet renewal: new aircraft often come with new engines which can reduce carbon emission savings quite significantly. The more efficient the engines, the less fuel is burnt and carbon dioxide emitted by the exhaust.

Why it’s important: Many engine manufacturers are currently working on new engines which can be up to 25% more efficient than their original models. That’s a quarter of the fuel saved per trip, and with jet fuel being the main component of an air ticket, this can translate to meaningful carbon emissions and financial savings for the airline.

This is why improved efficiency is a key component of most airlines’ decarbonization strategies. With dozens of thousands of planes on earth, and nearly 10,000 up in the skies at any given point in time, even a small percentage gain can help the sector get closer to net zero.

What impact could follow: With Farnborough International Airshow taking place in summer 2024, we are expecting more orders to come in the coming months. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that the number of planes replaced per year could exceed 2,000 by 2025. This record-high number and some recent supply chain challenges, however, beg a question: who is going to produce all these planes?

3. China shows off its latest aircraft

China took advantage of its geographical proximity to Singapore to fly its new locally-developed COMAC aircraft – the first time the plane was on display at an international show. The 60,000-plus visitors had the chance to catch a glimpse of this Chinese-developed and manufactured model before production is expanded and more units take to the skies.

The standard version of the COMAC 919 (C919) can fly approximately the distance between Shanghai and Singapore and can carry roughly the same number of passengers as the Airbus 320neos and Boeing 737 MAXs – currently the newer planes preferred by airlines for the short-to-medium haul market.

Why it’s important: One of the key objectives of China entering the aircraft production race is to provide optionality to airlines as aviation grows further and supply chain bottlenecks slow down new aircraft roll-out.

IATA forecasts that demand for air travel will continue to rise to 2040 and beyond, with Asia Pacific leading the way and growing the fastest (over 4% per annum). Hence there is potential for unmet demand for aircraft that China hopes to fill.

What impact could follow: Significant aviation growth comes at a cost for the environment. Even with improved engine efficiency and greater sustainable aviation fuel use, newer planes will continue to rely on liquid fuel that will need to be blended with fossil-based kerosene until SAF becomes mainstream. In addition, SAF still generates carbon emissions when fuel is burnt.

This is where zero-carbon emission forms of propulsion such as hydrogen and batteries could play an important role in getting the sector to net zero. The development of such powertrains is in its infancy but growing fast, and will bring about major infrastructure changes at airports as demand for hydrogen and electricity will increase – a key area of interest of the World Economic Forum’s Airports of Tomorrow work.

Looking ahead to the future of aviation

Singapore Airshow offered us a peak of what the future of aviation looks like: more sustainable fuels, newer planes and increasing international relevance of China and Asia Pacific.

But the event also reminded us of the challenges of decarbonizing busier and busier skies, the role governments can subsequently play in removing barriers to SAF scale-up, the importance of new engines and new aircraft and a look ahead to zero-carbon emission propulsion in the future.

And while a fully hydrogen-powered aircraft may not be commercially viable by the Farnborough International Airshow in July, we expect sustainability will continue to feature high in this year’s airshow agenda, with many more announcements to come.

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