All-electric passenger aircraft could be flying on its short-haul routes within a decade, claims easyJet
Sun 1 Oct 2017 – European low-cost carrier easyJet believes commercial flights using all-electric aircraft could be possible within the next decade, with a further ambitious goal that every short-haul flight is zero-emissions within 20 years. At its Innovation Day last week, easyJet outlined its collaboration with US electric aircraft manufacturer Wright Electric, which it has been working with over the course of this year to provide an airline’s perspective on a future electric-powered passenger aircraft. A prototype aircraft was unveiled with a range of 335 miles (540km), which would cover 20% of passenger journeys flown by easyJet. The airline also announced it is to introduce new electric towbarless aircraft tugs for its operations at London Gatwick and is partnering with Safran to start trials shortly on hydrogen fuel cell technology to enable zero-emissions e-taxiing of its aircraft.
Set up just 18 months ago, Wright Electric includes a team of aerospace engineers, powertrain experts and battery chemists previously funded by NASA to investigate the potential for electric aircraft. It has already demonstrated a two-seater plane with a battery weighing around 600 pounds (270kg). The company expects in time a scaled-up passenger aircraft, capable of carrying up to 150 passengers, will utilise new energy storage chemistries that are substantially lighter than today’s commercial batteries. The prototype shown last week includes a distributed electric propulsion system, swappable battery packs and high aspect ratio wings for energy efficient flight.
Jeffrey Engler, CEO and founder of Wright Electric, said using electricity is less expensive and more stable than liquid fuel, and solar electricity had seen massive reductions in price over the past 30 years, with the promise of more to come in the future. He said his plane would have 50-75% lower emissions than current fossil-fuelled aircraft and 10% lower cost of ownership overall.
“Working with easyJet to develop the next generation of air travel is a powerful validation of our technology approach, and their insights have been invaluable as we look to commercialise our electric aircraft for the large and growing short-haul flight markets,” commented Engler.
“EasyJet’s impressive team has provided deep insights to our engineers about the critical aspects required to run a successful airline, from maintenance to revenue management, and we look forward to working with them in the years ahead.”
The aircraft would be designed to cover routes such as London to Paris, Amsterdam or Belfast, and its 335-mile range would cover a high volume of easyJet routes.
“If we’re going to take that next step in environmental responsibility in reducing carbon emissions beyond the incremental changes we can make with existing technology, then we have to get behind exciting ventures like this,” said Peter Duffy, easyJet’s Chief Commercial Officer.
The airline is introducing Airbus A320neo and A321neo aircraft into its fleet that it says will reduce CO2 emissions by 15% and noise by 50%. Since 2000, it reports, emissions have reduced by 31% from 116.2 grams to 79.98 grams per passenger kilometre in 2016. EasyJet has a target of 72 grams by 2022, which would be a 10% reduction on current performance and a 38% improvement since 2000.
“For the first time, our industry can envisage a future which isn’t wholly reliant on jet fuel and its harmful CO2 and NOx emissions, and where our noise footprint is significantly reduced for all flights and completely eliminated for many,” said CEO Carolyn McCall. “The decarbonisation of other forms of transport like road and rail is advancing quickly and could now be matched by aviation.”
Wright Electric is not the only US start-up looking to enter this market. Backed by carrier JetBlue and Boeing, Zunum Aero is developing a small capacity hybrid-electric aircraft for the regional airline market with a range of up to 700 miles (1,100km). By 2030 it expects to be producing aircraft capable of carrying up to 50 passengers on routes over 1,000 miles (see article). Airbus and Siemens signed a collaboration agreement in April 2016 to demonstrate the feasibility of hybrid-electric propulsion by 2020, with their sights set on developing a commercial aircraft with less than 100 seats that could enter service by 2030.
During its Innovation Day, easyJet announced it would be replacing its diesel aircraft tug vehicles at London Gatwick with new electric towbarless versions manufactured by TLD that are capable of performing up to 20 aircraft push backs per single charge (see photo below).
The airline also confirmed a partnership with French aerospace manufacturer Safran to trial hydrogen fuel cell technology for use as a zero emissions taxiing system. If applied across its fleet of 279 aircraft, the system could save around 55,000 tonnes of fuel and associated CO2 emissions, and as it would enable silent operations, significantly reduce noise associated with taxiing. First trials are expected to take place next year at Toulouse Airport.
“Safran is both delighted and proud to be teaming up with easyJet on this programme, which marks a vital step forward in the use of hydrogen on airplanes,” said Didier Godart, the company’s VP Innovation.
With its high frequency and short sector lengths, easyJet says around 4% of total annual fuel consumption is used by its aircraft when taxiing.
“These innovations will not only reduce our impact on the environment but will also provide respite for communities living near airports,” said McCall.
Animation of easyJet electric plane:
The TLD TPX100e electric towbarless aircraft tug to be introduced at London Gatwick (photo: Wright Electric):