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June 9, 2022

Aerospace’s Secret Sustainability Solution

Next generation Aerospace innovations like SAFs and eVTOLs are too far off to meet the sustainability goals of today’s major airliners, says John Pila, former CTO of Spirit AeroSystems. Instead, airliners must rely on a tried-and-true sustainability method: cutting weight and cost.
John Pilla | former Chief Technology Officer, Spirit AeroSystems
John Pilla , former Chief Technology Officer, Spirit AeroSystems


Leah Archibald: The pent-up demand for travel that built up over the last two years, has officially been released onto the marketplace. The spring 2022 season saw airline flights climbed to near pre-pandemic levels, just 9% short of the demand for the same period in 2019. With customers’ renewed enthusiasm for getting up into the skies, plus the Biden Administration’s goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050, commercial airliners are now racing with new urgency to embrace innovative solutions for sustainability.

The problem is that next gen forms of propulsion, such as fuel cells, SAFs and eVTOLs are still years away from commercial applicability, leaving airliners to ask: Is there anything we can do now, to leverage the benefits of sustainability?

My guest today has an answer to this question. John Pilla has been watching the wave of aviation 4.0 from the vantage point of a long career in aerospace engineering. He started as a stress engineer for Boeing and spent the last 16 years with Spirit AeroSystems, where his roles ranged from senior VP in charge of profit and loss for all Airbus programs, to Chief Technology Officer. If there’s anyone who can tell us which technologies can actually help commercial aviation achieve sustainability today, it’s John Pilla. And you may be surprised, but he has a simple message for us, about getting airliners more sustainable, reduce manufacturing costs.

John Pilla welcome to the podcast.

John Pilla: Thank you, Leah. I’m glad to be here.

Leah Archibald: Help us sort through some of these buzzwords: hydrogen fuel cells, eVTOLs, Sustainable Aviation Fuels. Can any of these technologies be applied to commercial aviation in the near term, or are they for the time being ideas that aren’t going to get off the ground?

John Pilla: I understand your pun, and the simple answer to your question is: No, not near term.

Society, in general, wants to reduce pollution, reduce CO2, and reduce usage of fossil fuels. This has become even more important, because now we’re facing $5-gallon gas for our cars, and that translates into probably double that for Avgas, to fly a plane. There are sustainable aviation fuels being flown on aircraft as tests, and a sustainable aviation fuel is, for lack of something better, an ethanol-based or a plant-based item. There is no large manufacturer of that fuel, so you just couldn’t turn the fleet over to it.

Hydrogen is another idea. The issue with hydrogen is mostly: Where do you put the big tanks of hydrogen? Because you need more volume than you would for regular fuel and the weight of all the systems. And there again, there’s no place to pull in and get a tank of hydrogen. Or not in the scale we need. So, you asked, are they a fad for the time being that can’t get off the ground? They’ll get off the ground experimentally, but it could literally be 10 years before they’re operational and maybe way more before you see an airplane that has 150 people on it, like a 777 or A320, that’s flying on pure sustainable fuels or energy.

Leah Archibald: And when we’re talking about commercial aviation, which is really your line of expertise, there’s a lot more people and a lot more weight that you need to be moving than is moving around with these experimental technologies right now.

John Pilla: Absolutely.

Leah Archibald: So, what can aerospace manufacturers do in the near term then to start to address sustainability issues?

John Pilla: Well, sustainability is being addressed by the larger manufacturers. I saw a post on LinkedIn by Collins Aerospace just yesterday about thermoplastics for example. If they could substitute thermoplastics for thermoset composites, the thermoplastics have several big advantages. One, they’re a little cheaper. Two, they’re much more energy friendly to process and they can be recycled, because you can re-melt a thermoplastic and you can’t re-melt a thermoset.

Leah Archibald: Talk a little bit more about the relationship between cost and weight. Because let’s say you want to adopt a new technology, but it’s going to be expensive converting over to machines that are using thermoplastics. You might need different processes in your manufacturing facilities. But if they eventually shave weight off the aircraft, then you’re saving cost on fuel, aren’t you?

John Pilla: Absolutely. And that makes it cheaper for the operator. Often, you get a benefit of saving. If you save some weight, then often you can save some cost. And as you mentioned, there can be a non-recurring cost to implement a weight savings. But if you have an airplane that’s being built like a 777 or A320, where it’s anywhere from 30 to, Airbus talks in the press, about 70 a month, you can get paid back very quickly with that kind of production rate.

And again, the lighter you make an aircraft with these composite large wing and large fuselage, the less fuel it’s going to use. So if there are 1000 in the fleet, you can save a lot of petrol and pollution.

Leah Archibald: Now, I imagine working with Spirit AeroSystems, they’re not making all the components for their planes in-house. Very few airliners are. When you think of having so many different suppliers who are making components for your airplanes, how do you partner with your suppliers to help get the weight down and therefore the cost down?

John Pilla: At the early stages of an airplane design or even when there’s a new dash number coming out, like a slightly longer airplane, the suppliers are brought in in the early design phases. Boeing calls it Working Together. Airbus has other names, but the idea is that you get their input before you draw a drawing and give it to them. And so everyone’s working on not only weight, but cost at the same time.

I would say that sustainability does not add to the cost of manufacture. It can actually save money if done well.

Leah Archibald: What I’m hearing from you is that a sustainability conversation isn’t just about new exciting technologies. It’s about rolling in this knowledge we’ve always had: getting down the weight and getting down the cost.

John Pilla: Absolutely.

Leah Archibald: One final question. If we’re going to pull back to 30,000 feet, we know that manufacturers are facing two big dilemmas regarding their product line. The first big question is How to make it? And the second big question is Where to make it? From your executive experience in the aviation industry, in this industry that’s changing so quickly to adapt to sustainability concerns, how would you advise other aviation executives to start to answer these questions: How to make it and Where to make it?

John Pilla: The trade studies that are done early on a plane will always consist of cost, weight, and also material availability and sustainability. Some of that will drive how it is built and usually how it is built then drives where it is built. Shipping is an interesting thing. We built big panels in North Carolina and put them on a boat to go to France. And there’s not much of another way to do that. Boeing actually built a set of airplanes called Dreamlifters 747, modified that you can slide a whole 787 inside. All of those things have to be considered and also be considered in terms of sustainability. Is that worth it?

The Toyota model tends to bring suppliers all in one location so they can work better together. And then they have a Toyota factory and then they have all the small factories around them so logistics is not a big issue. And then you have to go where there’s skilled labor. Some labor you can train in a community that doesn’t have that kind of skill, but some labor you can’t. So, with those three things, I think building a shorter supply chain and having single providers for your part so you can partner better so everyone is working on making money—then you’ve got a sustainable model.

Leah Archibald: This is not how we’ve thought about it all these past years. We’ve thought of sustainability and making money at odds with each other.

John Pilla: I do see that has been the way. Interesting thing on the 787, Boeing called their design teams, LCPT, which is Life Cycle Product Team. So right at the beginning, the name of the team was not just design, not just build, but life cycle product team. And those thoughts wove through the whole design.

Leah Archibald: I’m really encouraged listening to you today, John, because what I’m hearing is that sustainability isn’t this extra effort that we’re going to tag on at the end. In order to hit those KPIs that we’ve been trying to hit forever, including lowering cost, sustainability is actually a solution.

John Pilla: Absolutely.

Leah Archibald: John Pilla, thank you so much for joining me today in the podcast.

John Pilla: Well, thank you for having me. I’ve enjoyed it too. We don’t often get to just wax philosophical on these deep issues, but it’s been fun. Thank you.

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