Few industries have done or been pilloried more in the name of sustainability than business aviation. In this environment, the data on bizav’s comparative carbon footprint is a Rorschach test suggesting either an oversize pair of Dr. Martens or baby booties, even as sustainable aviation fuel, aerodynamics advances, and coming propulsion technologies help power the sector toward its net-zero 2050 goal line.
The aircraft cabin, though drawing less attention than tech-driven advances, plays a key role in business aviation’s sustainability push for reasons extending beyond bottom-line economic benefits, and it’s a part that OEMs and MROs, their vendors, interior designers, and customers are increasingly embracing.
“If we’re going to move our industry and society in the direction of sustainability, it’s going to involve the sum of small things,” said Vadim Feldzer, Dassault Aviation’s head of global communications. “That’s where improving the sustainability of the cabin comes in.”
Now, the means and metrics to quantify cabin sustainability are being developed and a new generation of sustainable bio-based materials are being deployed, signaling accelerating momentum for green interiors.
If less ballyhooed than technological advances, perhaps it’s not the more modest footprint reductions that sustainable cabins achieve compared to say, a new-generation powerplant, but rather because aircraft interiors have been largely sustainable for some time.
“We’ve been offering sustainable premium textiles, wood, stone, and naturally sustainable fibers for decades,” said Christi Tannahill, Textron Aviation’s senior v-p of customer experience, citing the wool, cotton, linen, silk, mohair, bamboo, and leather common in Textron’s and other OEMs’ cabins.
In its Savannah, Georgia production facilities, “Sustainable materials are used throughout Gulfstream interiors,” said president Mark Burns, singling out traditional fabrics, along with natural latex and composite veneers, “all of which can be derived from renewable resources.” Furthering cabin sustainability are the largely recyclable components.
“Cabinets are mostly aluminum honeycomb and can be fed directly to a smelter,” Burns said. “Natural fibers such as silk or wool can have second lives as jute, rags or feedstock for paper mills, while synthetics such as nylon and polyester are sought after by carpet mills to use as feedstock to create more carpet.”
At Bombardier, Global and Challenger cabins feature “a range of upcycled and engineered soft goods made from reclaimed or natural fibers,” said Laurence Casia, manager of industrial design and cabin innovation, many of them showcased on its super-midsize Challenger 3500, which entered service in September. The rapidly renewable wood option for cabin surfaces, and more locally sourced fiber-based materials “are often more durable and lightweight” than those they replace, he said.
In addition to the fabrics, wood, vegetable-tanned leathers, and other renewable and environmentally friendly materials throughout Dassault Aviation’s Falcon cabins, the forthcoming flagship Falcon 10X is designed with modular interior elements to enhance sustainable maintenance. “If there’s an issue with a cabinet, for example,” said Feldzer, “It’s easy to repair or modify without having to replace substantial interior components.”
Now, sustainable materials are entering a “super natural” era, uniting them with technology and opening new frontiers in design and sustainability.
Austria-based F/List, long known for its innovative, bespoke interior components and outfittings for luxury residences and super yachts, as well as high-end jet cabins, is “now diving into a lot of sustainability elements,” said innovation head Melanie Prince. “That leads us into different types of materials.”
Internally and in partnerships, F/List is creating “a portfolio of stuff that actually works and that is actually sustainable,” Prince said. Some mimic and match the look and feel, while outperforming less sustainable high-end materials, for example, the hides and skins of undomesticated animals. Meanwhile, the bio-based material underlying its Shapeshifter technology, debuted at NBAA-BACE in October, brings to the cabin dynamic movement that can alter interior spaces.
Germany’s Lufthansa Technik (LHT), which has introduced recent innovations including voice command in cabin management systems and ultra-thin curved OLED screens that save weight and energy, is adding sustainable materials to the list, including its new AeroFlax. A flax-based replacement fabric for fiberglass or carbon-fiber parts such as sidewalls and ceiling panels, AeroFlax offers a 20 percent weight savings over the fiberglass or carbon, along with low density and good mechanical properties, said Wassef Ayadi, senior director of customer relations and sales support services. It meets flammability standards thanks to a proprietary mix of flame-retardant additives created by LHT.
No definition of a sustainable aircraft cabin exists, but tools and methods for assessing such qualities are taking shape amidst growing industry-wide engagement in cabin greening initiatives. Business aviation has long-term established goals for net-zero, requiring that whatever amount of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) are generated by making and using a product over its lifecycle is removed from the environment.
On the journey to net zero, business aircraft cabins provide a performance space to showcase the beauty and benefits of sustainability in visual, tangible ways. They can start a conversation about solutions to environmental challenges, instead of just the problems. Cabins already serve as points of inspiration for interior designers and engineers eager to expand sustainability’s performance envelope. And also critically, sustainable cabins answer growing customer demands.
”More private aviation customers are becoming aware of sustainable materials, and requesting them when it comes to cabin design,” said Casia, a trend seen across OEMs, completion centers, and aftermarket refurbishers.
“Interest in more sustainable cabins,” said Tannahill, comes “from customers around the world.” Agreed Feldzer, “There is clearly a trend among customers to minimize environmental impact.”
That demand extends to the apex of the luxury cabin world, those outfitting new and pre-owned VIP airliners.
“Clients are now asking specifically in proposals what you are doing [for sustainable cabin design],” said Daron Dryer, CEO of U.S.-based Comlux Completions, the cabin design and installation arm of Swiss VIP airliner specialist Comlux Group. In addition to its custom completions for private clients, the Indianapolis, Indiana company is designing in partnership with Airbus and installing the pre-configured interiors of the newest Airbus Corporate Jet, the ACJ TwoTwenty, which will incorporate a host of sustainability elements.
Underscoring the strong sentiments the subject engenders, Airbus Corporate Helicopters, sibling of the VIP airframer, delivered late last year an ACH145 light twin outfitted with a “fully vegan” interior. The buyer, German entrepreneur Urs Brunner, is married to ethical fashion pioneer Daniela Brunner, whose label uses no animal products in its offerings and donates all profits toward animal welfare. She reportedly demanded his helicopter’s interior follow those same precepts. The leather elements are replaced by synthetic Ultraleather, which looks, feels, and wears like leather—though it’s not as easy to work.
“This is where the craftsmanship of our hands-on team became crucial,” said ACH head Frederic Lemos. “We found a practical way to meet our customer’s desires, which also looks superb.”
Not all customers are on board the greening trend, so cabins can also be icebreakers in sustainability conversations.
Textron’s demonstrator aircraft for the refreshed midsize Citation XLS Gen2, which entered service in May, features an “eco-friendly interior” with organic, natural, and biodegradable fabrics and leathers, along with reconstituted veneer. Explaining these options “helps customers discover how they can create their dream interior, while also being eco-conscious,” Tannahill said.
But a new demographic of buyers needs little prompting. “The younger generation is already very open to the sustainability topic, so these conversations are much easier to have,” said Prince at F/List. “For them, the aircraft is a very efficient means of transportation, but they don’t want to compromise on the sustainability aspect. [The interior] doesn’t have to scream ‘sustainability,’” she said. “But it has to look and feel very, very high end.”
While demonstrator models can serve as state-of-the-art sustainability showcases, “concept cabins” allow OEMs and interiors specialists to introduce novel ideas and applications, and judge market reaction and practicality before offering them to customers.
A concept for the Praetor 500/600 from Brazil’s Embraer envisions “a multidimensional sustainable interior,” incorporating, in addition to sustainable natural materials, design elements based on the Japanese art of “Mokume-gane,” a technique for creating mixed-metal laminate from discarded materials—including, in this case, titanium, copper, and plastic—for cabinetry and other cabin surfaces.
A widebody cabin concept, Affinity, created by Boeing completion specialist Greenpoint Technologies in Washington, integrates biophilic, or human-nature-centric design and organic materials, with innovative technology. Setting the tone, expansive OLED screens host live green feature walls that display nature scenes, illuminated by circadian rhythm-aligned lighting.
Basel-based Jet Aviation is already committed “to offering our customers a range of sustainable choices,” said v-p of completions sales and marketing Matthew Woollaston. The company introduced this year a VIP cabin concept named Mink that includes table marble marquetry made of stone offcuts, complementing the natural fiber fabrics and flooring made from recycled materials. The MRO is concurrently investigating additional materials for use in its ongoing completions and refurbishments, including plant-based “leather” and water-based paints. These materials “enhance cabin sustainability without sacrificing the look, feel, and quality,” said Woollaston.
If Woollaston’s comment raises the question of whether luxury and sustainability can co-exist in the business jet cabin, the response from the frontlines is uniform.
“Sustainability, quality, and craftsmanship are without a doubt compatible,” said Gulfstream’s Burns, adding, “Natural materials at their best are typically also the finest.”
Said Casia at Bombardier, “We’ve demonstrated that sustainability doesn’t mean having to make any compromises.” The greener elements, he added, “are as comfortable and luxurious as they are sustainable, and as light and beautiful as traditional materials.”
Tannahill pointed out that cabin materials are selected first for their natural properties. The sustainability test is the ultimate, not primary criteria.
“Wool is sound-dampening and naturally flame-resistant, and cotton, linen, silk, mohair, and bamboo are also naturally flame-resistant, as well as durable and luxurious,” she noted.
The one outlier among the sustainable natural elements in the cabin is the signature polished hardwood veneers, long standard in high-end interiors, and traditionally sourced from slow-growing, exotic, or endangered tropical hardwoods. Today a variety of sustainable veneers and other cabin surface options are available.
Comlux Completions is among those that use reclaimed and repurposed veneers to create new ones. “You cannot tell the difference between these reclaimed products and traditional veneers,” said Dryer, noting that the repurposed product is an option on the ACJ TwoTwenty.
Challenger and Global cabins offer hardwood veneer made from fast-growing eucalyptus trees, cutting carbon dioxide byproducts by 43 percent and water consumption by 94 percent over traditional veneer production.
Dassault’s multiple alternatives to standard veneer include an in-house process that reduces varnish applications and applies a paint finish over sustainable wood. At Textron, the composite veneers in Cessna Citation and Beechcraft cabins are made “by using every scrap of veneer left over from a ‘green certified,’ responsibly harvested initial veneer,” Tannahill said, with the pieces laminated together to “create a new, modern grain pattern.”
When natural veneer is used, she added, it’s sourced from “high-quality surplus inventory when available to minimize new production processing efforts.”
Customers in the aftermarket can opt out of veneer and choose an entirely different surface look or go with the retro exotic hardwood style, all without having to source any raw materials or account for their footprint size.
MROs Duncan Aviation and Liberty Partners offer hydrodipping, a low-cost process that shrink wraps a detailed, 3D image replicating the look of any material—or a scene or artwork—onto almost any complex, solid shape. A hydrodipped cabinet, for example, after the film is applied in a dunk tank, can mimic an exotic veneer or carbon-fiber surface indistinguishable from the real McCoy or just as easily showcase artwork or a fanciful tableau, providing more options for demonstrating individuality as well as sustainability.
Because the energy used in development and production is a major lifecycle GHG source—and bottom line cost—reducing its consumption has been a key sustainability focus, piggybacking on investments in efficiency justified in the name of economy.
Dassault has reduced the emissions of its entire production process by nearly 20 percent in the last five years, the French manufacturer said. Textron takes advantage of the windy environment of Kansas, meeting almost all the electricity needs of its Wichita and Independence facilities through wind power.
At Bombardier’s manufacturing facilities in Canada, “Hydroelectric power helps us lower our environmental footprint,” among the renewable energy sources “that contribute to the production of the aircraft,” Casia said. All of Bombardier’s eligible sites, he added, have or are in the process of obtaining ISO 14001 Environmental Management System certification, attesting to their green efficiency credentials.
But what do all these efforts add up to on the way to net zero, and what impact does the cabin have on an aircraft’s overall carbon footprint?
“It would be hard to point to firm data,” said Feldzer, echoing the responses from other business aircraft manufacturers. (He noted materials weight savings are the simplest metric.)
But if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it, as management sage Peter Drucker observed, so stakeholders across the industry and beyond are establishing the tools and processes to quantify the carbon cost of their products. Internationally recognized benchmarks such as the Greenhouse Gas Protocol and its Corporate Value Chain (Scope 3) Standard, along with accredited certification agencies, set baselines, as demand for corporate transparency in this type of accounting grows.
“Big corporations are increasingly obliged to make declarations of their carbon footprint,” said Elina Kopola, a UK-based aircraft interiors specialist and founder of the new Green Cabin Alliance (GCA).
Established last year by a group of interiors professionals, GCA “aims to build awareness and to promote a sustainable mindset in the industry,” said Kopola. “We don’t have a shared agenda yet, but one of our goals is to build a common and shared language,” she said. Most of GCA’s charter members work with transport aircraft interiors, “But whether they’re business jets or commercial aircraft, we want to look at how the cabins are built.”
The corporate accountability Kopola referenced affects aircraft producers and consumers alike.
“A significant amount of Gulfstream’s customers are corporations, and more and more of them are aligning their business-jet operations with their corporate sustainability and responsibility goals,” said Burns. “They want to work with an aircraft manufacturer that shares that commitment to sustainability.”
For corporate buyers concerned about the luxury image attached to business jets, “A shift to eco-friendly materials supports the perception of the cabin as a productive workspace, albeit a very comfortable and elegant one,” said Feldzer.
Supply chains have responded to these same forces, and vendors are expected to play collaborative roles in sustainability initiatives. All of Gulfstream’s suppliers, for example, adhere to a code of conduct including a mandate for environmentally conscious business practices, in addition to complying with sustainability requirements for raw materials.
The cabin materials Textron sources must be both 100 percent natural and cradle-to-grave certified, attesting to their safe biodegradability; the reconstituted veneer is certified through the Forest Stewardship Council.
Bombardier’s primary criteria for selecting sustainable materials are CO2 emissions and water consumption, and suppliers “provide all the information in regards to energy consumption, water consumption, chemical use, transportation and more, to establish their actual environmental advantages,” said Miguel Garcia Claro, senior professional, engineering—strategy, sustainable product development. If needed, Bombardier will help with the analysis.
Now the Canadian company has brought a new innovation to business aviation’s net-zero push, publishing an environmental product declaration (EPD) for the entire life cycle of its new jets. First created for the Global 7500, then the new Challenger 3500, and henceforth for all its new aircraft, the EPD provides comprehensive data on the footprint of the aircraft and its components.
Based on ISO 14020 international standards, the EPD development process requires a tip-to-tail, cradle-to-grave analysis, including “specific requirements for environmental claims,” for every part in the aircraft, said Claro. The Challenger 3500 EPD, for example, accounts for the lifecycles of more than 40,000 parts.
But few factors have a bigger impact on sustainability than the lifespan of the product itself.
“Part of our approach to reducing environmental impact at Gulfstream is to design aircraft that have long service lives to mitigate the need to consume resources to build replacement aircraft,” said Burns, a point other manufacturers also cite. (The average age of a business jet was over 18 years in 2020.)
The Bottom Line
The savings in GHGs clearly add up, but how do the costs of a sustainable cabin compare with a less pedigreed interior, and will customers pay a premium for it?
Interiors professionals say sustainable raw materials often cost less than less sustainable options because processing costs are minimal and production is, by definition low-cost. Eliminating chemical dyes in favor of natural-based colorings, for example, eliminates costs associated with handling caustic or toxic materials.
All the sustainables Textron’s design teams source “are rapidly renewable and harvested in 10 years or less,” said Tannahill. LHT noted the main ingredient in Aero-
Flax is flax, an easy-to-raise crop.
However, “additional incremental costs can be involved” with sustainable cabin materials, said Casia. Their supplies may be limited, naturally achieved high quality may command better prices, or development costs could be added to new bio-based materials.
But the ingredients that go into a business jet interior are all top quality, with prices to match, and cost differentials between sustainable and non-sustainable materials could be negligible. Said Tannahill, “The prices are comparable to other custom selections because our sustainable offerings are equally high-end and exclusive.”
Pricing and costs aside, Prince at F/List suggests conversations about these choices should focus on the “exclusivity and customization” of the materials rather than their sustainability. “A certain audience likes something very unique, and this is one of those things.” She added, “Afterwards we can give them the argument that they’re making the world a better place by choosing these materials and that it doesn’t have to be a compromise.”
But any additional costs are understood and accepted by “discerning customers, who are becoming more environmentally conscious,” said Casia.
Like many in the industry, he thinks the customers share the conviction that drives these net-zero goals: “The savings made by avoiding emissions and waste, through judicious choices of more sustainable materials, will ultimately benefit us and our planet.”