With the in-person EBACE show canceled for a second year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, AIN spoke with Athar Husain Khan, secretary-general of the European Business Aviation Association (EBAA), ahead of the virtual EBACE Connect replacement event to get his take on issues affecting business aviation in the region. Though Covid-19 is still an immediate concern that he addressed, Husain Khan is very focused on what he sees as the business aviation community's next biggest hurdle in Europe and elsewhere—the environment. It is no secret that had EBACE taken place this year, sustainability would have been a key focal point of the Geneva show, with sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) at the top of the list as to how business aircraft operators can most immediately cut carbon emissions.
The European Union seeks to become carbon-neutral by 2050. How does that impact business aviation in the region?
The entire business aviation value chain in Europe takes sustainability very seriously and the sector has been working to reduce its environmental impact in several ways for years and long before the launch of the European Green Deal. We recently presented our strategic plan for advancing the production, availability, and use of SAF in the region and co-hosted the first-ever European Business Aviation SAF Summit. The SAF Summit saw a ridiculous turnout, with almost 1,100 registrations and we recorded around 650 participants at one point in time live on the webinar. This proves how deeply committed our members, operators, and FBOs alike are to carbon-neutral growth and a reduction in CO2 emissions. It is now embedded in their DNA.
During the SAF Summit, green advocacy group Transport & Environment insinuated that business aviation in the past has always been at the forefront of technical innovation but now seems to be surpassed by the airline segment. Do you agree with that?
KLM was the first airline worldwide to operate a passenger flight on 100 percent e-kerosene, but for that to conclude that business aviation has been “surpassed” by commercial aviation on technological innovation is a bit too much and slightly unfair on the business aviation industry. The European business aviation community’s vision for further deployment of SAF, which we presented at the SAF Summit in April, clearly illustrates our pledge to SAF and how we can push its uptake and distribution further. We do have a track record on innovation—including winglets, weight and balance, flight deck avionics—and we continue to build on that. For example, the book-and-claim system for SAF is a business aviation invention. It will actually help the geographic spread of SAF uplift in a very effective way.
The European Commission’s long-awaited ReFuelEU Aviation initiative aims to increase the uptake of SAF. The legislative proposal [Ed. Note: which was not yet released when this interview was conducted] will likely include an SAF blending mandate. Does EBAA support this policy tool, which will increase costs and administrative burdens on the industry?
We welcome the ReFuelEU Aviation initiative because it provides for several elements that can push the topic of SAF further and many of them are aligned with the policy recommendations contained in our SAF strategic vision. A lot of questions still need to be answered—for instance, what the interconnection will be with other market-based measures such as CORSIA, ICAO’s carbon offsetting scheme and reduction scheme for international aviation, and the EU emission trading system. In regards to the blending mandate, it will even out the situation across the EU as all member states will impose the obligation to mix jet-A with SAF, and the percentage of the blend should be the same across the EU as well. It will avoid the patchwork that is in the making now. Also very encouraging is the staggered approach—the proportion of SAF will initially be low and gradually increase. It is expected that the mandate will be placed on the fuel suppliers rather than on the individual aircraft operators and thus the additional admin burden should be minimal, at least that is what we hope and lobby for.
Business aviation in Europe has withstood the pandemic relatively well, certainly compared to the scheduled airlines. Does this compound the image that business aviation is for the jet-set, for the rich who can afford luxury travel and know their way around travel restrictions?
Quite the opposite. The pandemic has enabled business aviation to highlight its profile as a safe alternative to mass air travel, avoiding busy airports and big aircraft, as an on-demand, pragmatic product that does not fly unnecessarily. In addition, the Covid-19 crisis has put the spotlight on business aviation’s humanitarian component—flying medical supplies and people needing medical assistance, whether pandemic related or not; transporting humanitarian relief to remote areas; and providing high-priority travel for governmental and scientific personnel involved in the Covid-19 response.
What are the main challenges going forward?
Sustainability and post-Covid recovery rank on top of the list. They are followed by three topics that were on the agenda before the pandemic: correcting the wrong perception of business aviation as a luxury, exclusive product; access to infrastructure; and advocating for regulation that recognizes the specific needs and characteristics of business aviation.
If you would be asked to name one overarching concern, what would it be?
Divergence of safety regulations between the EU and the UK. I would hope that the regulators on both sides would be wise, smart, and proactive enough to understand that convergence should remain.
How is EBAA weathering the Covid-19 crisis?
This has been a challenging time for everyone. In all frankness and honesty, I miss seeing my colleagues in the office. EBAA is a pretty tight-knit and well-balanced outfit. I have a lot of respect for my team’s continued commitment and efforts to represent the members’ interests throughout the pandemic. Obviously, it is very disappointing for all of us that we had to cancel the in-person EBACE for a second time. It is the premier event for the European business aviation community, with all stakeholders involved in nearly every aspect of business aviation flocking to Geneva to network, do business, and exchange views.