John Kelly is Rolls-Royce Senior Vice-President Civil Aerospace for Africa, Middle East & Europe. He weighs the trend of recovery in the African market and the alluring opportunities as the continent strives towards sustainable aviation development, in this exclusive interview withAviation & Allied Business Journal.
Q: As the year 2021 rounds off, how does the industry compare with the experiences of 2020 and your personal expectations for 2021?
A: We have seen a return to flying during 2021, and of course, that is a positive. I’ve just attended Dubai Airshow, and, again, the fact that we are having these types of events is another signal that the industry is starting to recover from the impact of COVID-19. One market that has acquired a new focus in the last year is cargo, and I was delighted to see the first orders announced at Dubai for the new Airbus A350 Freighter, which our Trent XWB engine will exclusively power.
The year has also seen a renewed focus on sustainability, which is understandable given we have all experienced a pandemic that has made us value the importance of our ability to connect and recognise our planet’s fragility.
We are playing our part in that, and we have a strategy that is made up of three elements: improving gas turbine efficiency, supporting the introduction of 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel and developing new forms of propulsion.
This year we’ve made great strides in all three areas. Our next-generation UltraFan® demonstrator engine is on build right now at our site in Derby, UK, and it will offer a 25% fuel burn improvement on the first generation of Trent engines. It will be an incredible sight, with a fan diameter of 140 inches, making it the largest engine in the world, and its first test run next year will be using 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel.
In terms of 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuels, we recognise the incredible possibilities of ‘drop-in’ solutions, whether created from organic materials or synthetically. However, we also recognise the challenges to making them a reality in our industry. Our commitment is to do everything we can to make 100% SAF introduction possible in engineering terms and actively work with fuel producers, governments, and industry authorities to promote a ramp-up in fuel production, especially in relation to scalability and price point.
We have already carried out tests on the ground and in the air on our Trent and Pearl engines. We have found no barriers to its use in our engines, and this year we pledged to have proven all of our Trent engines are compatible with 100% SAF by 2023.Our work extends beyond aircraft propulsion – our Small Modular Reactor technology could offer a low-carbon energy solution to the production of synthetic SAF fuels.
Regarding new propulsion technologies, we are at the forefront of research and development into technologies for new aircraft in the small-to-regional sector, which are now embracing alternatives such as electrification and hydrogen.
For projects such as small propeller aircraft, air taxis, commuter and regional aircraft, our electrification work ranges from kilowatt to megawatt power. We have a hands-on approach to learning by doing, often working with start-up companies in rapidly evolving sectors.
Q: Rolls-Royce announced in October a successful test flight using 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), working in conjunction with Boeing and World Energy; what does this signify for aviation and the environment?
A:This was a successful flight on our Boeing 747 Flying Test Bed aircraft that we set up to fly with one Trent 1000 engine running solely on 100% SAF while the remaining three RB211 engines ran on standard jet fuel.The aircraft flew from Tucson airport in Arizona, passing over New Mexico and Texas, arriving back at the airport three hours and 54 minutes later. Initial indications confirm there were no engineering issues and each flight of this nature provides further proof of the fuel’s suitability for commercial use.
Aircraft are currently only certified to operate on a maximum of 50% SAF blended with conventional jet fuel, and Rolls-Royce continues to support efforts to certificate non-blended SAF. This is particularly important to support sustainability in long-distance air travel, which will require the power density of gas turbines for years to come.
In terms of making sustainable aviation fuel to scale and economically viable, we know we cannot do this alone. So we are actively supporting efforts to bring the aviation sector, fuel industry, governments and industry bodies together to break through those barriers. Each 100% SAF engine test enables us to work ever more closely with global fuel providers, aircraft manufacturers and regulatory authorities and understand their issues.
Q: Would you say sustainable aviation fuel would deliver environmental benefits, especially in Africa and regions with a considerable proportion of ageing aircraft?
A: I think the introduction of SAF and the use of 100% SAF is a global opportunity with global environmental benefits. As long as we have validated the relevant aircraft and engines are certified to use this fuel, any aircraft using 100% SAF will reduce emissions due to the lifecycle benefits of the fuel’s creation. As mentioned previously, Rolls-Royce is committed to demonstrating the suitability of all our Trent engines to operate on 100% SAF by the end of 2023.
Q: Rolls-Royce has had engagements with several African airlines such as Airlink and Uganda Airlines; how would you describe Rolls-Royce’s participation and support to the African aviation industry in 2021?
A: Rolls-Royce has a substantial market share powering both widebody and regional aircraft with a presence across at least 20 countries. Throughout the challenges brought about by COVID-19, we’ve been working closely with our customers to make sure fleets are available and ready to fly.
We were delighted to sign TotalCare® agreements with Uganda Airlines at the beginning of the year and recently with Airlink. TotalCare® offers more than just an engine maintenance plan; it is a service concept based upon predictability and reliability. These agreements give our customers a secured cost of operating and maintaining their engines.
Q: Do you see the possibility of more African carriers taking up newer aircraft selecting Roll-Royce engines, given the severe economic challenges that may hamper replacements in airlines’ fleets?
A: Newer aircraft, such as those powered by our Trent 1000, Trent 7000 and Trent XWB engines, offer economic and environmental performance improvements. Still, ultimately, of course, it will be a matter for each African airline to judge its best way forward.
Whatever that course may be, airlines can be assured that we stand ready to support them with a range of TotalCare® service options tailored to support Trent engines, whatever the stage they are at in their lifecycle, from brand new to mature.
Q: The intra-Africa market is set for increased competition as air transport and trade liberalisation would drive up aviation and economic activities intra-Africa; how do you approach competition in this emerging market?
A: The introduction of the world’s largest free trade zone, The African Continental Free Trade Area, is not a precursor to greater competition for Rolls-Royce. On the contrary, it is an opportunity for us to support growth in our customer base across the continent. The key to operating in Africa is understanding the unique requirements of each individual country and working together to leverage the opportunities of greater connectivity, whether intra-African or globally.
Q: What do you look forward to in the aviation industry in Africa in 2022 and over the next 5-10 years?
A: I think Africa’s hopes are similar to those of everyone worldwide. That we continue to recover from the impact of COVID-19 and that we can meet and connect again, but do so sustainably.
African airlines play their part in that recovery. We stand ready to support them, whether that be an investment in new aircraft and engines, leased aircraft, transitions, or continued support for engines already in service.
Looking forward, we will continue to support the global drive to decarbonise aviation, and we will continue to discuss the issues around sustainability and keep the world informed of our progress on the three elements of our own sustainability strategy.