Sustainable Aviation: An Interview with Suzanne Kearns
In this interview, Suzanne Kearns shares her vision on some exciting topics, including the challenges the aviation industry faces, innovative technologies and practices shaping sustainability efforts, as well as the importance of collaboration between stakeholders in achieving a more sustainable future for aviation.
Meet Suzanne Kearns, Professor at the University of Waterloo & Founding Director of the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Aeronautics.
Tell us about yourself & your work
I’m an associate professor at the University of Waterloo. At the university, I have a typical professor role meaning I split my time equally between teaching and research. About 20 percent of my time is dedicated to service both the university and the external community.
What has been the focus of my work for the last few years was building connections with other researchers on campus and find out how their work could apply to the aviation sector. I spoke to many professors, sometimes world’s leading experts in fields like artificial intelligence or environmentalism. I think what struck me through our discussions is that there’s such a need for their research in the aviation sector.
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What ignited your passion for sustainable aviation?
I grew up flying. I started flying when I was 15, airplanes and helicopters, and I was just in love with aviation and still am. But I was trained in a very traditional way. I think many of us in the aviation industry have had a very similar educational path. And I think because of that, we don’t necessarily have the tools in our toolbox to address some of the emerging challenges around environmental considerations and sustainability. So I think the real driving force behind what I’ve been working on is, instead of starting from the ground up, how do we bring in that cutting edge expertise that is already there and start applying it to support our sector?
Aviation & ecological transition: what are the strengths and weaknesses of the industry?
I think the strength of the industry is our people. I know it comes from both young people who are just getting into the aviation industry all the way up to the leaders. I think all of us have one thing in common: we are very passionate and excited about the field of aviation. That is a true strength because even though we’re facing big obstacles, we are motivated to collaborate and innovate. We try to address the issues whilst keeping all the good parts of our sector.
The biggest challenge we’re facing in the future of our industry is finding the right balance in sustainability. It’s a balance between three pillars: economic, environmental, and social sustainability.
I define social sustainability as diversity and inclusion, of course, but I look at it in broader terms to include things like human factors, flight physiology, innovations in training and supporting the workforce and the people in our sector. I think all these aspects form social sustainability.
Social sustainability hasn’t always been part of the conversation, but I think if you define it in that way, you can start to see how these three elements balance each other. For those like myself who have been in aviation since childhood, I think we have trained in the same way that environmentalism seemed like more work...
However, we can improve our environmental footprints while doing things better to support our people, reduce the negative environmental impacts, and make more revenue.
If you look at the way we train pilots. At the very beginning, they fly in small aircraft, which, of course, burn leaded fuel and create noise. It is also time-consuming because pilots spend a lot of time in briefing or taxi before they get to do the training they are set to do.
But look at how innovations are shifting training procedures into either virtual reality or electrically powered simulators on the ground. You can support social sustainability by having a training more targeted to the learners’ needs and by reducing expenses.
Schools have a higher profit margin on those devices because they are easier to maintain and operate. So, it’s an economic benefit for the schools, and you’re not burning fuel. You’re reducing both carbon and noise emissions. It’s an example of a winning strategy where you can pull together and innovate in a way where it’s a net benefit to everybody involved.
What is your opinion on the industry roadmap?
I think that I’ve been excited to see some leading organizations in our sector prioritizing sustainability. In the last 12 months specifically, if you’re monitoring as I do, how many times you see the terms aviation sustainability, it’s gone to be a priority.
So as far as a roadmap for the future, I think these are the right priorities, the right vision. I guess now it’s just about building up that foundation of infrastructure and people and innovation and technologies so that we can achieve those bigger goals.
What future do you see for aviation?
Before the pandemic, we had impending shortages of personnel. We had growing environmental emission issues and a growing flygskam movement. And we also had a rapid evolution of technologies. Our sector was struggling to integrate these safely and efficiently into operations.
When the pandemic hit, I focused on how I could mobilize the research capacity specifically to support some of these big priorities aligned with the three pillars of sustainability so that when the sector would eventually recover, we could help support more sustainable recovery and a more sustainable future.
I have just recently approved a new research institute called the Water Institute for Sustainable Aeronautics. The institute will have more than 35 different professors from all disciplines across the university. The University of Waterloo is known for its powerful focus on technology, computer science, and engineering. We also have an entire faculty of environment. Its core foundation is to draw together innovations from all these disciplines. The vision is to mobilize all this research capacity into supporting the sector in its recovery and future.
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However, the only way it can be effective in doing that is through collaborations with industry, government, policymakers, and other academics. I think the stake for the research field is not to keep behind big walls and closed doors, but to really break those barriers down and form a bridge between the needs of the sector and the academic capacity. And that’s what I hope we can do.