“We also have to rethink our behavior”

Innovations in aviation primarily target the reduction of fuel con­sump­tion and emissions. But that might not be enough, says Prof. Marion A. Weissenberger-Eibl from the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI).

11.2016 | Text: Eleonore Fähling

Eleonore Fähling has been on the AEROREPORT editorial team since 2014 and in charge of the MTU employee magazine since 1999. As an aerospace journalist, she specializes in aviation history and market topics.


Professor Weissenberger-Eibl, the flight from Munich to Hannover takes scarcely an hour. However, you also have to factor in several hours for travel­ing to and from the air­port and for check-in, boarding and dis­em­barking. If you go by train, it takes roughly the same time to get from one city center to another. In that case, what’s so good about flying?

Prof. Marion A. Weissenberger-Eibl: For people like me who travel a lot, flying makes sense when­ever you can actu­ally save time or when there is no real alter­native. I’m talking about international and trans­con­ti­nen­tal flights. For me, flying is a fasci­nating phenomenon and has become an integral part of our glob­al­ized society, con­nect­ing people and cultures. For domestic flights, however, you should ask yourself if flying is really the best alter­native. At Fraunhofer ISI, for example, we record our environ­mental footprint in a sus­tain­ability report that also covers our travel activities.

How can and must the air transport system develop in the future?

Weissenberger-Eibl: Even if aviation cur­rent­ly accounts for “only” two per­cent of world­wide trans­port emissions ac­cord­ing to the United Nations’ ICAO civil aviation agency, concepts are urgently re­quired that make carbon off­set­ting and the reduction of green­house gas emissions actually possible. With global aviation emis­sions pro­jected to triple by 2050, it is absolutely vital to find solutions as quickly as pos­sible. One pos­sibil­ity would be climate-neutral biofuel. In addition, projects that seek to in­crease energy ef­fi­cien­cy should be further pursued and expanded, such as work on engine concepts that promise sig­nifi­cant fuel savings or indeed the further de­vel­op­ment of flying wings.

For this to happen, what players are needed? What in­no­va­tions? What must change?

Weissenberger-Eibl: Naturally, the first people to come to mind here are the leg­is­la­tors and regu­lators, such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States, but also biofuel manu­facturers and suppliers as well as engine and aircraft manu­facturers.

However, you have to be realistic and appre­ciate that genuinely revo­lu­tion­ary technical in­no­va­ti­ons still have to be de­vel­op­ed first in most cases. And it is precisely this situa­tion that under­scores the im­port­ance of non-technical and organi­zational measures. Although emissions trading can play a sup­port­ing role here, it’s not enough to minimize emissions. We also have to fun­da­men­tal­ly question and rethink our behavior—and that goes for all of us. At Fraunhofer ISI, we’re trying to minimize busi­ness trips wherever possible and sensible, such as by using phone or video con­fer­ences instead.

How do innovations actually arise?

Weissenberger-Eibl: Innovations are born out of a need; they develop out of a func­tion­ing tech­nol­ogical de­vel­op­ment system and also out of appli­cation niches. They can be triggered by govern­ments or society through means such as funding programs and in­vest­ments in promising tech­nol­ogies. In other words, it’s mostly a case of tech­nol­ogies for which there is a demand, or else it arises from research and de­vel­opment in profit-oriented companies.

Consequently, most inno­vations are demand-driven, while interaction with users also plays a decisive role—something we’ve been talking about for several years now under the guise of open innovation.

What stands in the way of innovations?

Weissenberger-Eibl: Innovations are frequently impeded by regulations that exclude new tech­nol­ogies. Under certain circum­stances, another aspect can be the high de­vel­opment costs or the major ex­pendi­ture required to change structures within compa­nies. However, the Innovation Indicator 2015, which Fraunhofer ISI compiled together with the Centre for European Economic Research on behalf of the Federation of German Industries (BDI) and the German National Academy of Science and Engi­neering (acatech), also identified other obstacles to inno­vations, for instance, that the basic conditions for research in Germany are still in need of im­prove­ment. More investment, the continuation of research pacts, a resulting increase in planning certainty for universities and research institutes, and better co­ordi­na­tion of federal and state governments in the field of third-level education are also having positive effects throughout the German innovation system.

Univ.-Prof. Dr. oec. Marion A. Weissenberger-Eibl

Univ.-Prof. Dr. oec. Marion A. Weissenberger-Eibl Dipl.-Kffr. (Univ.), Dipl.-Ing. (FH), Director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI) and Chair of Innovation and Technology Management at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT).

Since 2013, Prof. Dr. Marion A. Weissenberger-Eibl has been Chair of Innovation and Technology Man­age­ment at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), an institution devoted in par­ticu­lar to carrying out scien­tific investi­gations with practical relevance for its area of research. In addition, she has headed the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI) since 2007, and lectured in inno­vation and technology management at the University of Kassel from 2003 to 2012.

Having obtained primary degrees in business man­age­ment and clothing engineering, she obtained a PhD (2000) and a professorship (2003) at the TUM School of Man­age­ment at the Technical University of Munich. Alongside her scientific work, she is also a member of the Supervisory Board of MTU Aero Engines AG.

What should an innovation-promoting educational culture look like?

Weissenberger-Eibl: Education is one of the main pillars of our inno­vation system. It forms the basis for science and business and makes a decisive contri­bution to Germany’s com­peti­tive­ness. In inter­national com­pari­sons of inno­vation capa­bility, Germany holds its own, but un­for­tu­nate­ly it’s not at the very top of the table. In the abovementioned Inno­vation Indi­cator, Germany ranked fifth in the overall indi­cator and ranked seventh in the Education sub-indi­cator. For years, edu­cation was one of the biggest weak­nesses in the German inno­vation system. And even though some things have improved here, there is still some way to go, es­pe­cially in the STEM (science, technology, engi­neering and mathe­matics) subjects. In these areas, there is a lack of graduates—and we need them to success­fully design and shape the energy transition, digi­talization and new mobility concepts. Although I’m glad to see that there’s currently a positive de­vel­op­ment in this sub-indicator, sub­stantial work still needs to be done in the edu­cation system.

“There is a shortage of graduates spe­cial­izing in the STEM dis­ci­plines – science, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math­emat­ics. We need them to suc­cess­fully design and shape the energy transition, digi­tali­za­tion and new mobility concepts.”

Prof. Marion A. Weissenberger-Eibl, Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI)

Which areas of the aviation industry need innovation most urgently?

Weissenberger-Eibl: In my opinion, it’s vital that we continue working on changing the environ­mental impacts of aviation. Further inno­vations are needed both to reduce green­house gas emissions and with respect to noise problems. The European aviation advisory council ACARE, for example, has com­mit­ted the aviation industry to am­bi­tious targets and published them in a Strategic Research and Inno­vation Agenda (SRIA) (see also „Saving fuel is in“).

How quickly do we need these innovations?

Weissenberger-Eibl: As quickly as possible—both from an en­vi­ron­men­tal and an eco­nomic point of view. If not ap­par­ent before­hand, the Paris Climate Conference em­phati­cal­ly dem­on­strated that “business as usual” is not an option for inter­national climate politics and the efforts to tackle climate change. At Paris, Fraunhofer ISI presented a study, carried out as part of the DecarbEE project, which revealed that by imple­menting suitable energy efficiency and decarboni­zation measures, the fast growing economies of the European Union and the USA, China, India, Brazil and Mexico could save some 2.8 billion dollars by 2030. This clearly shows that increased environ­mental and climate pro­tection can also offer and release big economic potential.

In relation to the aviation industry, a stronger focus on energy effi­ciency targets can help get the sector fit and ready for the future and maintain its inter­national com­peti­tive­ness. The German Aviation Association (BDL) publishes an annual Energy Effi­ciency Report, and the 2015 edition shows that the aviation industry has recognized the need for action: for example, thanks to more effi­cient air­craft and engines, German airlines have reduced fuel con­sump­tion per passen­ger and 100 kilometers by 42 percent since 1990. However, these efforts must be re­dou­bled and with a greater emphasis on op­por­tu­nities.

Fraunhofer ISI

The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Inno­vation Research (ISI) analyzes the genesis and effects of inno­vations and carries out systematic, inter­dis­ci­plin­ary research into the short- and long-term de­vel­op­ments of inno­vation processes as well as the social effects of new tech­nol­ogies and services. Its clients come from the spheres of business, politics and science. Some 230 people are employed at the institute’s head­quarters at Karlsruhe in southern Germany.

What political, economic and social back­ground conditions are also required?

Weissenberger-Eibl: First of all, politics—supported by research—has to recognize impor­tant stimuli and incentives for inno­vation and then promote this inno­vation, which will go on to have economic and social conse­quences. Let’s take as an example a topic that is very important for the aviation industry: the security of supply of raw materials. Our Raw Materials for Emerging Tech­nol­ogies 2016 study, which we carried out on behalf of the German Mineral Resources Agency (DERA), shows that new tech­nol­ogies will cause the demand for eco­nomi­cally strategic raw materials to climb dramati­cally in the future. This plays a hugely important role for the strongly import-dependent German economy in particular.

For instance, sharply rising demand for super­alloys in the aero­space industry over the coming years could affect the markets for special and minor metals, which would have conse­quences for the industry as regards tech­nol­ogy costs. So that Germany does not fall behind inter­nationally, poli­ti­cians must act early to secure the supply of eco­nomi­cally strategic raw materials for the sector. And poli­ti­cians must also consider the fact that the im­ple­men­ta­tion and market penetration of new tech­nol­ogies depends on accept­ance among the general popu­lation. Fraunhofer ISI takes these aspects into account in its research—for example, through studies that in­ves­ti­gate the social ac­cept­ance of inno­vative energy tech­nol­ogies such as wind power gen­era­tion on the mainland.

Getting back to the air transport system: in your view, which inno­vation has caused the most lasting change to the industry over the past few decades? Or is this inno­vation yet to arrive?

Weissenberger-Eibl: The most serious change in the industry in recent times has no doubt been the rise of low-cost carriers, whose strat­egies and cost models threw the es­tab­lished air­lines into a panic. From a purely market-based per­spec­tive, these de­vel­op­ments can perhaps be viewed as a good thing, but from a sus­tain­abil­ity point of view they are not very inno­vative. For such cases, inno­vation re­search­ers have the expression “frugal inno­vations,” which are stripped back to the core aspects of products or services and achieve big market suc­cess in this way.

In the case of air transport, the budget airlines triggered a lasting trend, in that flights were reduced to their transport utility and not so much what they can offer in terms of luxury and a pleasant ex­peri­ence. Let’s take as an example the dropping of en­ter­tain­ment services or free in-flight meals. This has made flying more afford­able for many people, but it has also caused aviation to lose some of its aura of being special and unusual. Some companies in the industry are now con­scious­ly bucking this trend in order to position them­selves in contrast to the low-cost carriers. However, all this has tended to push aspects such as sus­tain­abil­ity and climate protection even further into the backg­round over the past few years. In order to be ready and equipped for the future and inter­national compe­tition, companies in the aviation industry should inte­grate these factors even more com­pre­hen­sively into their overall strategy.


Carbon offsetting Compensating for carbon emis­sions produced by the burning of fossil fuels, e.g. by buying cer­tifi­cates whose proceeds fund climate pro­tec­tion projects such as forestation.

Open innovation Opening up the inno­vation process within an organi­zation to the outside world in order to increase inno­vation potential.

Frugal innovations These are all about de­vel­op­ing lean, fast and low-cost so­lu­tions, e.g. by con­cen­tra­ting on the bare es­sen­tials, by using existing or bought-on com­po­nents, and by sim­pli­fying dis­tri­bu­tion channels.

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