There’s no denying the recent, growing concern over the topic of climate change, especially the aviation industry’s impact on and contribution to global warming. A scary statistic for you to absorb: the amount of carbon currently produced by commercial aircraft is predicted to triple by 2050.
So, what���s being done about it? With the increasing pressure to neutralise CO2 emissions and achieve the U.N.'s net-zero carbon emissions deadline by 2050, major airlines are now actively getting involved in electric aviation projects around the world to tackle this problem. You could be going on vacation in an all-electric aeroplane sooner than you think - take a look at some of the active projects taking place today:
The project that’s currently leading the race towards electric air travel is Eviation’s ‘Alice’. Alice is a 9-seater, battery-powered, electric aircraft that has been developed to achieve sustainable emissions-free flights with significantly reduced noise and running costs. It completed all of these objectives in its first flight towards the end of 2022 which lasted around 8 minutes, reaching an altitude of 3,500 feet. Although Alice is still in its testing phase, it already has customers!
Cape Air, a regional airline serving parts of the United States and the Caribbean islands, has officially put in 75 orders for the Alice e-plane. Alice has a range of up to 250 miles so it’s only ideal for regional flights but perfect for an airline like Cape Air. Mexican start-up airline Aerus has also requested 30 of the Alice and hopes to use the e-plane for sustainable flights around northern Mexico that are currently underserved.
Israeli’s Eviation hopes to have the Alice entered into service by 2027, although this all depends on how quickly the aircraft can be certified by the FAA (which can be a long, arduous process). Another obstacle Eviation faces is the limitations to battery technology - currently, the batteries used are too heavy and don’t produce enough energy for longer flight durations. In the meantime, Eviation plans to develop 3 more test aircraft - one will be another prototype while the other two will be used to gain Alice’s airworthiness certificate.
Another project paving the way for electric air travel is being led by Swedish start-up, Heart Aerospace, who are currently developing the ‘ES-30’, a 30-seater electric regional aircraft that can achieve a maximum distance of 124 miles using only battery power. Prior to the ES-30, Heart Aerospace had originally planned to develop a 19-seater electric aircraft called ‘ES-19’ that would be offered to smaller airlines based in Scandinavia, but then bigger global airlines came knocking, urging Heart Aerospace to develop a larger regional e-plane that will significantly reduce these airlines’ production of carbon emissions - thus, the ES-30 was born.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, European airlines have been struggling to make money off of short-haul, regional flights and face regular cancellations. Although the ultimate goal of electric aircraft is to reduce aviation’s production of carbon emissions, Heart’s main mission is to make domestic air travel in Europe more viable for airlines by cutting manufacturing costs and its solution is by using the ES-30. The ES-30 has been designed to eventually replace the conventional turbo-prop planes flying these regional routes that struggle to turn a profit. The e-plane currently costs 50 times more than an electric bus to manufacture, however, if Heart can reduce this figure to 10 times more expensive, this will drastically cut manufacturing costs and ultimately make electric air travel in Europe and across the world more economical and achievable.
To extend its range, Heart Aerospace is also designing a hybrid-electric version of the ES-30 that can fly up to 400 km and will only create half the amount of CO2 that’s created by turbo-props that are still flying today. The ES-30 is expected to enter service in 2028 and has already had 230 orders from major airlines including United Airlines, Air Canada, SAS and Icelandair.
One of the most exciting projects out there belongs to Wright Electric (cleverly named after the Wright brothers) who are currently working on the development of ‘Wright Spirit’, a 100-seater aircraft with 4 engines that will run purely on battery power. Flights are expected to last up to 1 hour and you’ll only be able to travel as far as 300 miles, however, this is the only existing project so far that is working towards zero-emissions flights for short-haul airliners rather than much smaller, regional turboprop planes.
Wright Electric isn’t alone in this endeavour - easyJet is co-managing the research and development of this all-electric aircraft and hopes to introduce the Wright Spirit into service by 2027. It doesn’t end there! Wright Electric is also working on an even larger electric airliner called the ‘Wright 1’ which should be able to seat up to 186 passengers and be entered into service by 2030, in partnership with easyJet and Viva Aerobus. Some of the routes Wright Spirit hopes to operate include Frankfurt to Paris, Doha to Dubai, San Francisco to Los Angeles and Sydney to Melbourne, among several others.
Obviously, a lot of testing needs to happen before either of the Wright Spirit and Wright 1 concepts can come to life. Wright Electrics aims to get Wright Spirit’s test flight completed by 2024, but even if all goes to plan, there’s still a long way to go before the electric aircraft can be considered fit for service. The main obstacle that any aerospace company will face with the development of an electric plane is the certification process which can take as long as 2-3 years after its first flight.
French start-up, Aura Aero, is also taking part in decarbonating regional flights with its hybrid-electric ‘ERA’ (short for Electric Regional Aircraft). Although it’s not fully electric, it can still reach a maximum distance of 250 miles when running purely on battery and turbine power. The goal is to have the ERA takeoff using only battery power (this significantly reduces noise pollution), then utilise turbine power during the cruising phases of the flight. ERA has been designed to carry up to 19 passengers so it’s only ideal for short, regional flights at the moment - but this might be a good thing.
France recently banned all short-haul domestic flights in the country in favour of train travel and to help reduce the country’s carbon emissions. With the development of ERA, we might eventually see the return of domestic flights in France - the only difference is the flights will be emissions-free and more sustainable! Aura Aero has already disclosed 130 agreements for the aircraft with Afrijet, Elit’Avia, DUX, Flying Green, FMS and Twinjet. It plans to have ERA’s first flight takeoff in 2024 and be entered into service by 2027.
Another game-changing electric air travel project out there is the HyFlyer 2, designed and developed by British-American hydrogen-electric aircraft developer, ZeroAvia. ZeroAvia is working towards zero-emissions flights and reduced noise pollution by creating hydrogen-fuelled powertrain technology that will replace conventional engines in prop planes. The HyFlyer 2 project currently consists of testing the hydrogen-electric powertrains in the Dornier 228 (a twin-turboprop aircraft used for regional flights) with hopes to gradually manufacture a hydrogen-electric aircraft that can comfortably seat 10-20 passengers and fly up to 350 miles.
Early in 2023, ZeroAvia successfully carried out a test flight for its modified Dornier 228 that lasted up to 10 minutes using a hydrogen-electric powertrain made up of two fuel cells and a lithium-ion battery. It’s still early days though for ZeroAvia - although the test flight was a triumph, certification is the next hurdle to overcome and ZeroAvia hope to have a certified prototype ready by 2025.
The goal is clear - the development of electric flights will significantly reduce CO2 emissions, noise pollution and manufacturing costs within the aviation industry. The solution isn’t so simple and pursuing emissions-free air travel comes with its challenges. The biggest obstacle that Eviation, Heart Aerospace and other leading electric aircraft projects have is the weight of batteries and how much power they currently produce. To match the ranges, speeds and altitudes that present-day commercial aircraft carry out, electric planes will need to be powered by batteries at least 3 or 4 times their weight, however, this drastically limits passenger capacity.
Whether we get to board our electric flights towards the end of the decade or not, one thing is for certain - the future of electric air travel heavily depends on the improvement of battery technology.
Electric air travel isn’t here yet, but you can still fly sustainably. Take a look at our guides below on how you can be more fly more eco-friendly:
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