by Claire Mastrangelo
On the ground floor of the Engineering 5 building, the Sedra Student Design Centre is unusually quiet as Waterloo students listen intently to a presentation by Benoît Schultz, CEO of Airbus Canada. Having met with researchers and graduate students earlier in the day to explore opportunities to collaborate, the industry leader is now delivering a talk on Airbus’ sustainability initiatives, followed by a fireside chat with Mary Wells, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering.
Surrounded by workbays and prototypes of new technologies, the audience of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff from across the University prepare their questions about Airbus’s commitment to people, the planet and prosperity. A student in the front row asks about electric planes and hydrogen fuel cells, delving into considerations around energy efficiency and production challenges.
“I want to hire you for my Engineering team,” Schultz replies with a smile. “These are questions the team asks every day.”
One of the largest aircraft producers in the world, Airbus has committed to the aviation sector’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. However, Schultz is clear that his company needs partners to develop lasting solutions to climate change.
“We can’t do this alone,” he says to the audience. “We’re all in this together.”
The scope of the work required to achieve net-zero emissions is one of the reasons for the CEO’s visit. In addition to educating highly skilled students who graduate with industry experience, the University boasts some of the world’s leading researchers. Nearly 150 of them – based in all six faculties across the institution – advance social, environmental and economic sustainability as part of the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Aeronautics.
To address climate change, Schultz says the aerospace sector will need a combination of solutions including hydrogen, sustainable aviation fuels and lightweight materials.
“We also need to consider flight operations,” he adds, noting a recent test flight in which two Airbus planes flying in formation, mimicking the flight patterns of birds, saved five to six tonnes of fuel combined.
With so many factors at play, partnerships have become an important part of the way Airbus does business. Schultz points to NAVBLUE, an Airbus company located in the University of Waterloo’s David Johnston Research & Technology Park, as an example. The company focuses on optimizing flight operations and air traffic management for airlines and aircraft operators.
“Customers want solutions, not only products,” Schultz says. Partnerships put those solutions within reach by allowing Airbus to take a holistic view of the challenges facing their industry.
Founded in Europe with its headquarters in France, Airbus opened its first Canadian office more than 35 years ago and has expanded to include locations in Quebec, Ontario and Nova Scotia. Schultz moved to this country in 2021 when he became Airbus Canada’s CEO.
“We’ve found a constellation of talent here, like we have in France,” he says. “There is also a sense of pragmatism. People say, ‘We will help you take the steps you need to reach your goal 10 years from now.’ ”
Among those goals are targets to deliver aircraft and helicopters that are 100 per cent compatible with sustainable aviation fuels by 2030, along with the world’s first hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft by 2035. However, Schultz emphasizes that sustainability is about more than humanity’s carbon footprint: it’s also about treating their workforce with integrity and supporting the economic prosperity of communities worldwide.
Students in the audience ask how Airbus promotes equity within their company, and how they ensure that communities with fewer economic resources have access to sustainable technologies.
Acknowledging the complexity of these challenges, Schultz points to the Airbus code of conduct and the company’s equity, diversity and inclusion goals (including targets to increase the number of women throughout their workforce) as examples of their commitment to social sustainability. Outside the company, he notes that suppliers must sign a contract giving Airbus the right to audit their operations to ensure that workers are treated equitably.
Creating aircraft that can meet the needs of remote communities – including helicopters and airplanes that can land on short runways – is one step the company takes to support their customers outside of urban centres. Airbus also operates a foundation that sends aircraft and supplies to communities in distress.
“I don’t want to pretend we’re perfect,” he says to the audience, noting the questions around sustainability are still new. However, he remains hopeful that the aerospace sector will continue to innovate as it has throughout history, and that it will reach its sustainability goals with the help of partners who share a common vision for the future.
“We visit a lot of universities,” he says. “It’s rare to find one that makes you say, ‘this place is special.’ ”
Before stepping off the stage to conclude his talk, he faces the audience and adds,
“We’ll be back.”