Is sustainable flying to Antarctic a real possibility? | Polarjournal
The Hi-Fly Airbus A340 touched down on Wolf’s Fang Runway, the White Desert runway, at the beginning of November. The jet officially requires a 3,000 meter runway for landing and take-off. Image: White Desert

In recent years the discussion about flying has received increase attention. Mainly due to climate change, more and more the meaning and purpose of flights have been questioned, especially for flights to climate-sensitive regions like Antarctica. This becomes very clear when looking at the discussions that arose from the use of an Airbus A340 in the middle of Antarctica. The expedition tour operator White Desert, which has chartered and used the aircraft, is convinced that flying can be more sustainable and environmentally friendly if the framework conditions are set correctly.

The skillful use of one of the most economical and state-of-the-art aircraft, paired with cooperation with research institutions and meticulous planning, these are the framework conditions that the company used to enable the first-time landing of an Airbus A340 in Antarctica. The aircraft of the Portuguese charter company Hi-Fly complies with the latest environmental standards and, according to the company, is an extremely reliable and safe aircraft which, as a high gross weight aircraft, can carry a maximum load weight of 275 tons. The fuel consumption of this type is given as 6.5 tons per hour. This puts the aircraft in the front midfield. But White Desert and Hi-Fly want to make up for that somewhat by using environmentally friendly Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) in future. The company is trialing the use of 40,000 litres of SAF fuel this year. This fuel is made from residues of oil and fat waste and thus has an 80 percent lower CO2 footprint. In addition, the fuel emits far fewer particles and sulfur oxides, which leads to less soot and darkening of the white surface of Antarctica. With this and the already certified and award-winning CO2 compensation strategy of White Desert, flights to Antarctica can be carried out more sustainably and with a far lower environmental impact.

White Desert uses this Gulfstream Jet to transport its guests to its airstrip Wolf’s Fang Runway. From there they will then travel on to the two camps of the company. Image: White Desert

White Desert and its owners Robyn and Patrick Woodhead definitely know what they are talking about. For years they have successfully operated the Wolf’s Fang Runway, a landing strip for the company’s own Gulfstream Jet, which takes their guests from Cape Town to the Antarctic continent. And in a certified climate-friendly and CO2-neutral way. “It is absolutely important for us to mitigate the effects of our impact including transportation,” says Patrick Woodhead on the phone to PolarJournal. “We cannot operate in one of the most climate-sensitive areas on earth and do nothing. In addition to our existing and very well-functioning sustainability concept in our camps, we will now also use an efficient fuel to make our flights even more sustainable.” According to Patrick, the goal is a complete changeover of fuel consumption to the new SAF in the next 3 to 5 years. “If the trial phase this season is successful, which we assume, we will switch completely to this new fuel.” This will not only affect the new Airbus and the Gulfstream Jet, but also the Basler planes that take guests to the Emperor Penguins and the South Pole.

White Desert, who previously took their guests to Antarctica with a Gulfstream Jet, want to use the Airbus A340 to transport not only 40 people max but also hundreds of tons of material to Antarctica, especially for research stations and expeditions. Image: White Desert

The A340-300 model used by Hi-Fly can carry typically up to 254 passengers. So does White Desert, which has previously been operating with small tourist groups of up to 12 people, suddenly want to compete with the large expedition ships? “No way,” says Patrick Woodhead and laughs. “That would be a complete departure from our strategy. We will only transport a maximum of 40 people by plane, a mix of scientists and tourists, the rest will be freight. Because we have calculated that we can save up to 20 percent fuel if we fly in freight with the A340 instead of using a ship from Cape Town to the edge of the ice shelf and then transport it all with tracked vehicles to the runway and to the camps.” In order to fill the 40 spaces, White Desert plans to cooperate more closely with national Antarctic science programs and bring the station personnel and research teams to Antarctica comfortably, quickly and reliably. Wolf’s Fang Runway is ideal for this. “Our runway is long enough for an aircraft of the size, is available all through the summer months and is better protected due to its location.”

The huge Ilyushin Il-76 transports people and material from Cape Town to the Russian Novo Airfield. Image: ALE

Patrick Woodhead draws a comparison with the Russian Novolasarewskaya Station, also called “Novo Airfield”, further east. Machines like the spacious Ilyushin Il-76, which also transports people and material for the surrounding Antarctic stations, land there. Other large planes such as those from Icelandair also land on the Troll airfield of the Norwegian Troll station to the west to replace the station staff. They are all grouped together in the DROMLAN (Dronning Maud Land Air Network) and the cooperation is excellent. Nevertheless, there would be enormous potential here with the A340 used by White Desert. Closer cooperation and more efficient planning and use would, on the one hand, be financially more lucrative for the national Antarctic programs. On the other hand, it would also be shown externally that sustainability is also an issue in the logistics question of those who investigate the human impact on the white continent. This would definitely boost the societal credibility of research in Antarctica with its sensitive but beautiful environment.

Dr. Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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